Writer-Director: Jean-Luc Godard
With Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg
The Criterion Collection
Available Oct. 23; List Price $39.95
Godard's first feature was one of the most influential, and influenced, movies of all time. Though he would vault over genres and confound audience expectations, remaining an avant-gardist long after the avant-garde disappeared, Godard began with a film "dedicated to Monogram Pictures" (the Z-minus Poverty Row Hollywood studio) and infused with the fatalist, tough-guy attitude of what the French called film noir.
Attitude isn't the film's reason for its place in the modernist Pantheon, but it's what art-house audiences responded to in Breathless. The movie begins with Paris punk Belmondo puffing on a cigarette, wiping his mouth and declaring, "After all, I'm an asshole." Ninety mins. later, he's lying on the street with a bullet in his back and uttering his famous last words, "Makes me want to puke." In between, he lurches into an affair with International Herald Tribune salesgirl Jean Seberg (fresh from her discovery by Hollywood's Otto Preminger for his calamitous Saint Joan, and ready for redemption by Godard). They laze and argue in bed, sit and argue in cafes, striking poses that would define the French New Wave and be replicated in hundreds of European (and a few off-Hollywood) films to this day.
Criterion has encased this defiantly modest film in a two-disc jewel box: lots of interviews, an 80-page booklet with an excellent Dudley Andrew essay and lots of aphorisms from the endlessly quotable Godard. All that is terrific, but I'd almost like to have found Breathless in some ratty case on a discount DVD shelf. That would be more fitting for this outlaw art film to end all low-grade B movies.