"Breathless" @ 50

David Hudson

"It wasn't until I sat down and re-watched Breathless — in a beautifully restored new 35mm print — that I remembered that its sleek surface charms, while hardly insubstantial, don't really account for why we keep watching it so many decades later." Matthew Connolly in Slant: "Rather, what remains most striking, and most moving, about Breathless is its sophisticated yet largely guileless faith in the filmic medium, a cinephilia untainted by smugness or cynicism. Of course, such affection did not stop Godard from throwing out a slew of established filmmaking rules, from the continuity editing system to the notion that a film had to be inhabited by psychologically-consistent 'characters' acting out a linear, cause-and-effect 'plot.'But watching Breathless, one never gets the sense that Godard breaks these conventions out of anger or disgust — at least not yet. It comes from a place of jittery excitement and possibility, the double vision of appreciating so deeply the riches of cinema's past and seeing so vividly what shape its future could take."

"Is it possible now, 50 years later, even to imagine seeing Breathless for the first time?" asks AO Scott in the New York Times. "Mr Godard's film quickly took its place among those touchstones of modern art that signified a decisive break with what came before — paintings and books and pieces of music that have held onto their reputation for radicalism long after being accepted as masterpieces, venerated in museums and taught in schools.... [E]ven if you did not see Breathless during its first run at the dawn of the 60s, surely every frame carries an afterimage of that heady time, just as every jazz note and blast of ambient street noise on the soundtrack brings echoes of an almost mythic moment."

Richard Brody, author of Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard, recalls seeing it for the first time 35 years ago with friends "who had the doubtless strange and science-fictiony experience of finding the person who emerged from the screening to be radically different, as if at the molecular level, from the one they went in with. I found the rhythmic, intellectual, and emotional freedom of it to be incomparably exciting, liberating, and inspiring, and I knew at once that whatever I did for the rest of my life would have something to do with movies."

Speaking of Godard biographers. For the New Statesman, Colin MacCabe, author of Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at 70 — Godard will turn 80 in December, by the way — reviews Godard, by Antoine de Baecque, "the leading historian of postwar French cinema. His two-volume history of the journal Cahiers du cinéma is a model of intellectual history, and his mammoth 1996 biography of François Truffaut, co-written with Serge Toubiana, is the standard authority on that director. It would be natural to conclude, therefore, that a biography of Godard would complete de Baecque's picture of the nouvelle vague." Not so, at least according to MacCabe. Even at 935 pages: "It is as a source of historical material, and not as a work of analysis or interpretation, that de Baecque's book will endure."

But back to Breathless. The Time Out New York team has been making calls and has pulled together a marvelous collection of blurbs from the likes of Olivier Assayas — "Godard thought he was a filmmaker, but he's really a poet, and this work opened the breach" — to James Gray — "It's entirely unsentimental and, at the same time, the ultimate romantic story. If the definition of intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in one's mind without difficulty, then Breathless may be the most intelligent movie ever made" — to Paul Schrader: "Breathless is the fulcrum of film history."

"For those old enough to have cut their teeth on Godard's first effort at messing with French film orthodoxy while blowing an ambivalent kiss to American gangster movies, the movie comes as a thrilling reminder of how playful the master could be even when building a movie around a two-bit car thief and cop killer tooling around Paris, arguing love and existence with his American squeeze as he runs from the police." Ella Taylor in the Voice: "Perpetually in motion, raffish and cheap in his fedora and ill-fitting jacket, at once majestic and pathetic in his self-aggrandizing identification with Humphrey Bogart, Jean-Paul Belmondo's Michel oozes pugnacity to authority and a double-edged promise of seduction and betrayal to Jean Seberg's Patricia, whose angel face will prove to contain its own multitudes."

And here's Geoffrey O'Brien in a piece — not online, unfortunately — for the current issue of Film Comment: "In Godard, the moviegoer had taken over the movie; and where he had gone any of us might follow. The moment-to-moment exchanges of Breathless were not exotic or extraordinary in themselves, they became so because they had been filmed — or rather, they existed in the first place in order to be filmed. This was not film as a record of ordinary life but as cinematic utopia: a continuous process of inventing the world by turning it into a movie."

More from Eric Kohn (indieWIRE), David Thomson (New Republic), James van Maanen and Armond White (New York Press).

The 50th anniversary restoration, overseen by cinematographer Raoul Coutard, opens today at Film Forum in New York and at Laemmle theaters in Los Angeles, Pasadena and Encino. Check Rialto Pictures' site for further dates in more cities later on this summer.

Somewhat related: The Film Socialism roundup.

Update, 5/30: Anne Thompson's posted a fun read: "Back in 1968, veteran Hollywood publicist Harry Clein recalls, he visited the set of big-budget musical Paint Your Wagon to interview young actress Jean Seberg..."

Update, 6/6: In the Observer, cinematographer Raoul Coutard recalls working on the film and Philip French surveys the history of the New Wave.

For news and tips throughout the day every day, follow The Daily Notebook on Twitter and/or the RSS feed.

Don't miss our latest features and interviews.

Sign up for the Notebook Weekly Edit newsletter.


Jean-Luc GodardDailyNews
Please sign up to add a new comment.


Notebook is a daily, international film publication. Our mission is to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film. Notebook is a MUBI publication.


If you're interested in contributing to Notebook, please see our pitching guidelines. For all other inquiries, contact the editorial team.