In the France of the 1950s, a group of cinéastes emerged writing unique film criticism for journal Cahiers du Cinema. Together with aspiring Parisian artists, these writers brought their youthful enthusiasm and rebellious character to French cinema by producing fresh, unconventional films and forming what would come to be known as the Nouvelle Vague, or New Wave. These films, heavily influenced by documentary realism and post-war classical Hollywood cinema, eschewed established tropes of filmmaking and embraced the social concerns of the period and favored radical shooting and editing styles. The trendsetting new directors included François Truffaut, Louis Malle, Alain Resnais, Agnes Varda and others.
The bold, eclectic style of New Wave films was highly influential in world cinema. Breathless (1960), by director Jean-Luc Godard, is one of the most influential and beloved of this movement. Godard’s first feature introduces us to a preening but charming drifter, Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo), who speaks in lines from American gangster pictures while he steals a car off the streets of Marseille. Later, driving in the countryside, Michel is pulled over by a cop he accidentally shoots with a pistol he has found in the glove box. Confused, he flees.
Finding another “new” car later in sunny Paris, Michel seems unfazed and aloof as he cruises through town looking for his sometime girl, American student Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg), whom he eventually catches while she strolls breezily through a busy street selling newspapers. She seems both amused and vaguely annoyed to see him but, nonetheless, enjoys his dramatic flirting as he shadows her on the street. Neither of them has any idea he is being followed.
As the day progresses, Michel and Patricia move through town sharing private jokes, cigarettes and occasional truths about each other. Michel playfully hounds her for sex as a bemused Patricia rebuffs him and continues with idle chatter. Once at Patricia’s flat, they converse, change clothes and wonder about music, movies and their own futures as they punctuate their time with an occasional, lingering kiss. Later, out in the city again and briefly separated from Michel, Patricia is confronted with police who want her to turn him in.
“More than anything,” says the cinematographer of Breathless, Raoul Coutard (Jules and Jim, Z), “Godard wanted to make movies in a very different way.” Flexibility and resourcefulness seemed the only way for Coutard to prepare for Godard’s documentary-like approach to the material. Shooting days involved the director working with new dialogue he had just written and blocking it out with the cast and crew just before shooting. With Godard’s insistence on a naturalistic feel in varied locations — one moment a cramped room or car, the next a wide, busy street — Coutard knew precious few lights could be used. In order to get the crisp, fluid images Godard demanded, Coutard, in a risky and still legendary stroke of genius, used rolls of ultra-light-sensitive 35 mm still photography stock that allowed for a higher ASA than any of the motion-picture stocks available to him. The risk paid off, and Breathless’ often-quick changes of location and pace appear beautifully balanced and lit from natural sources. Coutard’s imagery made a significant contribution to the film’s much heralded and imitated style, and the two artists would go on to collaborate on 16 additional films.
Although Breathless has had solid home-video incarnations previously, including a Coutard-approved laserdisc and standard definition DVD from The Criterion Collection, the new, high-definition Blu-ray transfer has a remarkable incandescence. Coutard, who approved the new transfer, has helped create a strikingly film-like, dense and faithful 1080p image transfer, easily the best and most impressive home-screen version of the film, with the right balance of visible film grain and a steady sharpness throughout that never feels enhanced with DNR tools. There is a vibrant gray scale, with excellent blacks and gleaming whites throughout. The monaural DTS HD audio eliminates any age-related hiss and is generally full bodied, with good reproduction of dialogue and music.
Criterion has upgraded all the excellent supplements from its 2007 DVD package, including 1960s television interviews with Godard and cast members, interviews from 2007 with Coutard and assistant director Pierre Rissient, an interview with filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker and the film’s theatrical trailer. Also included is a 20-minute video piece by Mark Rappaport on the life of Jean Seberg, a “video essay” by film historian Jonathan Rosenbaum, Godard’s short film Charlotte et son Jules (1959), an excellent essay by Dudley Andrew, printed material by Godard and, finally, the 98-minute documentary Chambre 12, Hotel de Suede (1993), which finds director Claude Ventura returning to the original Breathless locations.
Jumping into the digital frontier, Breathless continues to radiate its unique and entrancing glow. After 50 years, the film’s distinctive, influential style and easy charm seem incredibly fresh in this new Blu-ray presentation. For fans and first-time viewers alike, this presentation of Godard’s mix of groundbreaking technique, luminous imagery, breezy jazz and “gangster” clichés and the romantic synergy between Seberg, Belmondo and Paris in 1960 is the definitive home-screen presentation that should be part of every digital collection.