From the vault: 1960

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 October, 2007, 12:00am


Starring: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg, Liliane David

Director: Jean-Luc Godard

The film: By 1960, several of Jean-Luc Godard's fellow critics at the film magazine Cahiers du cinema had already begun their directorial careers, and launched what came to be known as the French Nouvelle Vague, or New Wave.

Claude Chabrol had made Le Beau Serge (1958) and Les Cousins (1959), and Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows was an international success, but it was Godard's Breathless that really established the upstart film movement as an ongoing and definitive force to be reckoned with.

With its mercurial pacing, near-spontaneous construction, and free-flowing handheld camera movement, Breathless was not just a film, but a criticism of all that was wrong, in Godard's eyes, with French cinema. It broke nearly every rule in the book. Based on a story written by Truffaut, the screenplay was written and passed to the actors on a daily basis, often while they were on camera. When the film was found to be too long, Godard simply cut frames from existing scenes, rather than removing whole scenes, creating a distinctive, choppy style that looks familiar today but which was completely new at the time.

For his leads, Godard chose Jean-Paul Belmondo, whose career was just getting under way, and young American actress Jean Seberg. Her career had begun, peaked and almost ended with two films made for Otto Preminger - Saint Joan (1957) and Bonjour Tristesse (1958) - and her decision to appear in Godard's film (for only US$15,000) was a gamble that paid off, at least for a while (her career faltered again later and she committed suicide in Paris in 1979).

The relationship between Seberg and Belmondo (both right) is at the film's core, while the latter attempts to get hold of enough money for them both to leave Paris following his murder of a policeman. At times the film's relentless stylishness comes close to overwhelming its substance, but almost a half century later it is still an engaging, dynamic and essentially modern film.

The extras: Breathless was given a couple of half-hearted releases on DVD in 2000 and 2001, but this new double-disc edition from Criterion eclipses both with a better film transfer and superior supplements. No commentary track is included with the extra features (a fairly good one can be heard on the otherwise poorly produced Fox Lorber edition), but there's enough material here to satisfy all but the most inquisitive of viewers.

The most substantial item is an 80-minute documentary entitled Chambre 12, Hotel de Suede (1993), which looks at the production of Breathless through the eyes of some cast and crew members tracked down by the tenacious director, Claude Ventura. There are archival interviews with Godard, Belmondo and Seberg, and new ones with cinematographer Raoul Coutard (who approved this wonderful new high-definition transfer) and others.

Two video essays explore Seberg's life and Breathless as film criticism. Godard's early short film Charlotte et son Jules (1959) rounds out the on-screen extras, but there's also an 80-page book of essays and archival material.