As a postscript to my John Carpenter post from two days ago, below is an intriguing screen capture from the director’s 1987 horror film Prince of Darkness. I was struck by the fact that the creepy church that serves as the movie’s central location was named “Saint Godard’s.” Could Carpenter have a broader frame of cinematic reference than he has typically let on in interviews? Or perhaps he just had a cheeky production designer? Or should the fact that St. Godard’s contains a portal to hell mean that this homage should really be interpreted as an anti-homage? Or is it a humorous comment on the fact that, as far as many film critics are concerned, Godard is a saint while Carpenter is seen as the “prince of darkness”? I’m willing to bet that the first option I posited is closest to the truth; it’s probably just an affectionate homage from one master to another. After all, Carpenter’s mixture of 35mm film stock and video (the latter of which can be seen below) is quite Godardian and was unusual to see in a Hollywood movie at the time.
Tag Archives: Jean-Luc Godard
Bob Dylan turns 71 years old this Thursday. Following last year’s birthday post on Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, today I will pay a different kind of tribute related to Dylan and the movies. Below is a list of my top ten favorite Dylan references in cinema, excluding films that are actually about Dylan (e.g., Don’t Look Back, Eat the Document, I’m Not There), movies in which Dylan himself appeared (e.g., Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, Renaldo and Clara, Masked and Anonymous) or films to which he contributed original songs (e.g., Wonder Boys, Gods and Generals, My Own Love Song). Instead, what you have is a list of great movies that just so happen to make significant references to Hibbing, Minnesota’s favorite son through their soundtracks, dialogue, set design or props.
10. “Blowin’ in the Wind” playing at Emily Watson’s wedding in Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1996)
Breaking the Waves is a shamelessly manipulative but undeniably effective spiritual melodrama that probably still stands as Lars Von Trier’s finest hour. Set in rural Scotland in the 1970s, it poignantly depicts the relationship between Bess (Emily Watson), a woman from a deeply religious community and Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), an oil rig worker and “outsider” who is paralyzed in an accident shortly after their wedding. Here, Von Trier eschewed the formalism of his early work, showing a greater desire to collaborate closely with actors (before his obsession with female suffering started to seem dubious) and a then-novel use of handheld cameras and grainy video textures (before such aesthetics became old hat). The film also has a superb period soundtrack featuring the likes of Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, Roxy Music, et al. but Dylan fans might be especially pleased by the instrumental bagpipe version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” that plays at Bess and Jan’s wedding.
9. Jeffrey Wright singing “All Along the Watchtower” in Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet (2000)
Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet is a brilliant film adaptation of Shakespeare’s best loved play that keeps the Bard’s original dialogue intact while updating the sets and costumes to present-day New York City. The inspired casting includes Kyle MacLachlan as Claudius, Diane Venora as Gertrud, Bill Murray as Polonius and Dylan’s old pal Sam Shepard as the ghost of Hamlet’s father. My favorite scene features Ethan Hawke’s Hamlet delivering the famous “To be or not to be” monologue in a Blockbuster Video store. My second favorite scene sees Jeffrey Wright’s Gravedigger singing “All Along the Watchtower” in a trench. Perhaps because the lyrics to “Watchtower” already sound like they could be from a Shakespeare poem, this touch feels ineffably right.
8. Dennis Hopper reciting a lyric from “I Pity the Poor Immigrant” in Wim Wenders’ The American Friend (1977)
Wim Wenders’ film adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel revolves around Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper), an American con artist living in Berlin. The plot concerns Ripley’s contracting of a picture framer with a fatal disease (Bruno Ganz) to commit murder, but story ultimately takes a back seat to characterization in this slow-paced, moody, atmospheric neo-noir. A good example of Wenders’ existential bent can be found towards the end when Ripley half-sings/half-talks the opening line to a gem of a song from Dylan’s John Wesley Harding album: “I pity the poor immigrant who . . .” and then Ripley’s voice trails off. Any Dylan fan knows that had Ripley kept singing, the lyric would have described his character’s predicament exactly: “. . . wishes he would’ve stayed home, who uses all his power to do evil, but in the end is always left so alone.”
7. Myriad references in the films of Quentin Tarantino
Quentin Tarantino has said that when he was a video store employee, long before he became a director, he aspired to be “as important for cinema as Dylan is for music and songwriting.” Since then, the two have become mutual admirers and occasional sparring partners. Some of the myriad references to Dylan in the films of Tarantino: in Reservoir Dogs, Steven Wright’s DJ introduces “Stuck in the Middle with You” as a “Dylanesque pop bubblegum favorite,” single-handedly causing the song to be misidentified as an actual Dylan number on countless mp3 download sites. (This begs the question, if Tarantino had a bigger music budget at the time, would “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” be the song forever associated with Michael Madsen torturing a uniformed police officer?) Death Proof contains two very interesting Dylan references, which is hardly surprising given that Tarantino was listening to Dylan’s then-new album Modern Times while driving to the set every day; the jukebox in the film contains no less than six Dylan songs, including “George Jackson” (which, let’s face it, is Dylan’s blaxploitation song), and the magazine rack in a convenience store scene features the 2006 Rolling Stone magazine with Dylan on the cover. In Inglourious Basterds, the title characters are all Jewish American G.I.s, one of whom boasts the name of Zimmerman(!), while elsewhere Brad Pitt attempts to end a standoff by telling a German soldier “. . . you go your way and we’ll go ours.” For his part, Dylan’s only known public comment on QT was a nice acknowledgement on his Theme Time Radio Hour radio show that Bobbi Womack’s “Across 110th Street” was prominently featured in Jackie Brown.
6. Stephen Rea as a Bob Dylan impersonator in Lance Daly’s Kisses (2008)
One of the most Dylan-centric films ever made, this delightfully dark Irish fairy tale concerns two working class pre-adolescent kids who run away from their suburban homes at Christmas and spend a long night on the mean streets of Dublin. Along the way, the kids repeatedly encounter the music of Bob Dylan (including being serenaded by a barge skipper with “Shelter from the Storm”), a series of events that climaxes with them running into an Australian Dylan impersonator whom the kids mistake for the man himself. Ironically, Stephen Rea, wearing a cowboy hat, smoking a cigarette and wryly speaking in a low-pitched voice in his un-billed cameo, comes closer to nailing the essence of the real Dylan than any of the actors in I’m Not There.
5. Teenagers smoking hash and slow dancing around a bonfire to “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” in Olivier Assayas’ Cold Water (1994)
My favorite film by formidable French helmer Olivier Assayas is this 400 Blows-esque ode to juvenile delinquency that apparently draws on the director’s own childhood experiences. The movie’s highly emotional climactic scene involves troubled teenaged lovers Gilles and Christine running away from home and attending a party where they smoke hash and slow dance around a bonfire to an incredible vinyl playlist that includes Leonard Cohen’s “Avalanche” and Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Dare I say that the use of “Knockin’” here is even more effective than in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (the film for which it was originally written)?
4. Nick Nolte painting to a live version of “Like a Rolling Stone” in Martin Scorsese’s Life Lessons (1989)
The undisputed highlight of New York Stories, an omnibus feature film comprised of shorts by Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese, is Life Lessons, the Scorsese segment about an abstract expressionist painter who falls in love with one of his models. And what better song for Nolte’s volatile character, Lionel Dobie, to use as the soundtrack for an intense painting session than the angry, cathartic live 1974 version of “Like a Rolling Stone” from Dylan’s Before the Flood album?
3. Jean-Pierre Leaud asking “Who are you, Mister Bob Dylan?” in Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin-Femninin (1966)
Jean-Luc Godard’s zeitgeist film about the “children of Marx and Coca-Cola” captures the spirit of what it meant to be young in the turbulent 1960s perhaps better than any other movie. At one point, while reading a French newspaper, Jean-Pierre Leaud’s character, the boyfriend of a pop singer named Madeleine, has this exchange with a friend:
“What are you reading?”
“An article on Bob Dylan.”
“He’s a Vietnik, you know.”
“It’s an American word, a cross between ‘beatnik’ and ‘Vietnam.’”
“Who are you, Mister Bob Dylan?”
“Madeleine never mentioned him? He sells 10,000 records a day!”
Dylan and Godard have spoken of their mutual admiration for each other over the years and two of Godard’s films from the 1980s (Grandeur et décadence d’un petit commerce de cinéma and Puissance de la parole) feature Dylan’s Slow Train Coming classic “When He Returns” on their soundtracks.
2. A black and white photograph of Dylan from the mid-1960s hanging on the wall in the central location of Edward Yang’s Yi Yi (2000)
Edward Yang’s masterpiece, one of the great final films of any director, is an almost impossibly rich, tragicomic, multigenerational family saga that also functions as a vivid snapshot of Taiwan at the dawn of the 21st century. Taipei’s unique East meets West culture is illustrated in ways both obvious (N.J., the protagonist, leaves a wedding early so that he can take his son to eat at McDonald’s) and subtle (a framed black and white photograph of Bob Dylan is prominently displayed in N.J.’s home). Since N.J. is a businessman and music lover who abandoned his youthful idealism in the late ’60′s, the latter is a very nice touch indeed.
1. A vinyl LP of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan as an important prop in Jacques Rivette’s L’amour Fou (1969)
L’amour Fou, Jacques Rivette’s four hour improvisational film about the construction of a play and the destruction of a marriage, is one of the high points of the entire French New Wave. Jean-Pierre Kalfon plays Sebastien, a theater director who cheats on his actress wife, Claire (Bulle Ogier), with another actress named Marta (Josée Destoop). In one key scene, Sebastien is in Marta’s apartment helping her sort through vinyl LPs that she could potentially re-sell in order to raise some quick cash. He holds up her copy of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, which she declines to sell on the grounds that she still listens to it. Good girl!
Dylan fans reading this should feel free to chime in with their own favorite Dylan references in the movies in the comments section below.
Christa Lang Fuller is an actress, author and producer who runs Chrisam Films, the company she founded with her husband, the late Sam Fuller, in 1981. She got her start acting in movies in Paris in the 1960s, working with such notable directors as Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Pierre Chenal and Roger Vadim. After meeting him in Paris in 1965 she appeared in most of her husband’s films including, notably, 1973′s Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street, where she played the starring role.
I developed an online correspondence with Christa when she wrote me to kindly correct some erroneous information I had posted in my blu-ray reviews of Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss earlier this year. The following interview, conducted recently via e-mail, is by far my favorite piece that I’ve ever published on this site. I made no attempts to “normalize” Christa’s incredibly creative syntax and use of capitalization, which I believe accurately reflect the voice and speech patterns of an exuberant RACONTEUR. Anyone familiar with her husband’s work will understand why they were a match made in heaven by reading what follows.
MGS: So how does a young woman from Germany find herself acting in Paris during the height of the French New Wave?
CLF: My attraction to things French came from the fact that my grandmother on my father’s side had been of French Huguenot origin. TWICE a week I went to a French cultural center to study their beautiful language. Then I saw an ad about an au pair girl wanted in France. I left Germany at the age of 17 and remained in FRANCE. In ESSEN I had passed an audition for HELMUT KAUTNER at the theater school in BOCHUM —Arthur Miller’s THE CRUCIBLE, but my mother did not approve of me being an actor. In Paris after various jobs –my last au pair was with the stunning and briliant comtessa MIRANDA de TOULOUSE LAUTREC who is still my friend, I did translations for a textile firm all the while taking acting classes at night. I posed for PAUL BELMONDO, the famous sculptor and MARC ALLEGRET liked my tests and was going to star me in a movie about a GERMAN au pair girl surrounded by the hot actors of the sixties SAMI FREY, JOHNNY HALLIDAY and a big article about Christa Lang in the papers with the bronze bust by BELMONDO got me working with CLAUDE CHABROL in LE TIGRE AIME LA CHAIR FRAICHE —an alcoholic dumb blonde and getting a great review by CHAZAL in FRANCE-SOIR had GODARD ask his friend CHABROL if he could see me for ALPHAVILLE…….I also did a play for many months by SACHA GUITRY called LA JALOUSIE —the director HENRY MURRAY was ANOUK AIMEE’s father and loved to repeat that DA VINCI only made one MONA LISA and that he only made one ANOUK……his real name was DREYFUS and he loved to also repeat with glee how he lifted the grey skirts of Nazi secretaries occupying la belle France and do it to them from behind……….the rest of the story —I let you imagine the rest. It gets really raunchy…….I learned a lot performing LA JALOUSIE by SACHA GUITRY and remember turning 20 years performing in VICHY the day on my birthday…….SACHA GUITRY’s comic genuis can be discovered via CRITERION ===A GREAT BOX SET……..
MGS: Your bit part in Alphaville as the Seductress who picks Akim Tamiroff’s pocket is great. Accounts of how Godard directed actors during this time vary wildly. Do you recall if he was very specific in giving directions or did he let you and the other actors just do your thing?
CLF: GODARD was very exciting to work for — he knew what he wanted, but left you free to improvise!!! He was distant, but professional during the three day shoot and even though he acted strange when I met him for the first time, he was fantastic on the set. I love the movie, KARINA, CONSTANTINE, TAMIROFF and the whole vibe of the movie……Godard is really a unique talent.
MGS: You met your husband, Sam Fuller, around this time. In his memoir, A Third Face, he writes very memorably about your first meeting – a dinner date with you and your friend Maria-Rosa Rodriguez, who also happened to be Miss South America. What were your first impressions of Sam?
CLF: He was mesmerising, told us stories and was so genuine a person that I fell in love, but he never went for his actors in a romantic way. “It’s against my religion,” he used to joke. However I seduced him by mentioning RING LARDNER, not knowing that he had been one of his mentors in his adolescence. He promised that he would get me the ENGLISH version at BRENTANO’S. AND HE DID —–he was a man of his word and not some bullshitter like a lot of the men in showbiz —-I was sweating out his call —and he DID call and we started dating………PARIS, mon amour……….
MGS: A Third Face, published posthumously in 2002, is one of the all-time great books about a film director. What was your role in the writing and editing of this book?
CLF: VICTORIA WILSON at RANDOM responsible for many bios including the KATHERINE HEPBURN one, called to talk to SAM about BARBARA STANWYCK since she was planning her bio. SAM coud not talk after his stroke, was very weakened, so I sat in the sun with him and started writing the way he talked and read every sentence like he had written it, which in a way he did —-I had close to 2000 pages when he left us ……..in 1998 my granddaughter SAMIRA was born and from taking care for over three years day and night of my husband, I had now a baby to help nurture. Like GARGAMELLE in RABELAIS: I cried with one eye and laughed with the other……….I had picked Jerome Henry RUDES because he had a good eye and was a minimalist to edit SAM’s almost hundred years on this planet.
MGS: I was blown away by “The Reconstruction” of The Big Red One when it was released a few years ago. The newly integrated scenes, including your scene as the German Countess, make the film a much richer experience. But I know some critics were skeptical of some decisions such as the voice-over narration being retained. Do you think Sam would have been pleased with this version of the film?
CLF: Of course, he would have been pleased………it’s a 90 percent improvement thanks to RICHARD SCHICKEL and BRIAN JAMIESON. The scene of the countess I liked was when SCHROEDER shoots her, her pearl necklace has pearls falling one by one on the floor. Don’t know where those rushes are, but at least the Hitler bad-mouthing countess is back in the picture like they say!!!! And a scene with an impotent Nazi at that, can’t get any better!!!
MGS: Sam’s final movie, Street of No Return, is full of great moments but it was sadly re-edited against his wishes. Is there any chance it too might be reconstructed in a cut that more closely resembles his original intentions?
CLF: SAM suspected JACQUES BRAL of having a hidden mimetic rivalry going on and even though he was kind and polite, to cut and recut a film for a whole year was strange. He is a good director himself………but here we go to what the French call L’espace du NON DIT……….maybe the film will get more or less SAM’s cut again and a new run………
MGS: I’ve managed to track down all of Sam’s movies even though a lot of them are difficult to see in the U.S. What can you tell me about the status of never released-on-DVD titles like China Gate, Run of the Arrow, Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street, Les Voleurs de la Nuit and the wonderful Mika Kaurismaki documentary that you conceived and produced, Tigrero: A Film That Was Never Made? What are the chances these titles might see home video distribution soon?
CLF: AM WORKING on CHINA GATE —-the great song by NAT KING COLE with the same title CHINA GATE is available on itunes —-hope the dvd will be happening soon—-it’s INDOCHINA before it became VIETNAM —LES VOLEURS DE LA NUIT ==have no idea but it was fun to have scenes with the late, great CLAUDE CHABROL, one of the funniest directors ever —it’s not a bad movie at all…….CASSAVETTES liked it a lot when they booed it in BERLIN and he got the golden BEAR for LOVE STREAMS……ten years later we got the BERLIN CRITICS AWARD for TIGRERO, a real crowd pleaser that I am very proud to have brought forth into the light. SAM had shot those rushes of the incredible KARAJA indians in 1955 with the same BELL AND HOWELL camera that he shot the liberation of the camps with in 1945 and in 1975 the birth of our daughter SAMANTHA……….death — adventure—birth………..Returning with SAM, MIKA KAURISMAAKI and JIM JARMUSCH and SARA DRIVER to make this wonderful piece TIGRERO was one of my happiest moments ever!!!! THEY put it out on dvd, BUT NEVER really got behind it, the way they should have. Hoping for a new life of TIGERO as well —the young people should discover the life of the KARAJA INDIANS……Incas who migrated from the ANDES and settled on the foot of the amazon —their language resembles JAPANESE and no linguist can figure it out…….
MGS: I teach film history classes to a lot of young people who may have heard Sam’s name but might not be familiar with his work. What movies would you recommend for them to see to introduce them to the world of Sam Fuller?
CLF: all of the them —he really had to fight hard for most of the movies to retain his artistic integrity……..he loved being with students and they liked him in return, because he was without WAX —-sans CIRE —sincere—–
MGS: Thank you so much for your time.
In the entire history of cinema, the single movement to have exerted the biggest influence over contemporary movies is probably the eternally cool French New Wave, which began in earnest in 1959 with the release of Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour and lasted for all of the turbulent 1960s. Today, the New Wave is thought of as being synonymous with the early revolutionary films of the young film critics of Cahiers du Cinema who turned into directors (Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette) but, as with most historical movements, it can be more fruitfully approached by casting one’s net a little wider. I do so here by including films by their “Left Banke” comrades (Resnais, Agnes Varda, Jacques Demy and Chris Marker) as well as more left-field entries like Jacques Rozier’s Adieu Philippine.
The 400 Blows (Truffaut, 1959)
The film that Francois Truffaut was born to make: a semi-autobiographical tale of juvenile delinquency in which social criticism, a love for the medium of cinema and a poetic but ruthlessly unsentimental depiction of childhood combine for a uniquely poignant and unforgettable experience. The fact that a young, first time director like Truffaut could win Best Director at Cannes for such a highly personal, low-budget and freewheeling movie signaled that a sea change had occurred in the French film industry.
Hiroshima, Mon Amour (Resnais, 1959)
Alain Resnais’ first feature takes an impeccable, highly literary script by Marguerite Duras and turns it into a radical, intensely cinematic movie: two lovers, an unnamed Japanese architect and a French actress, have a lengthy conversation on the subject of memory. The present day scenes are continually peppered with flashbacks to the woman’s harrowing experiences as the persecuted lover of a German soldier during the Second World War. Resnais’ groundbreaking, nonlinear editing style, used to suggest “flashes of memory,” has had an incalculable effect on subsequent filmmakers.
Les Bonnes Femmes (Chabrol, 1960)
The masterpiece of Claude Chabrol’s early career dissects the hopes, dreams and romantic entanglements of four young, attractive Parisian shopgirls. Characteristic of the New Wave is Chabrol’s use of documentary-style location shooting, the performances of a charming, youthful cast and an intelligent, deliberate mixture of disparate genres: comedy, melodrama, tragedy and, most unforgettably, the Hitchcockian thriller.
Breathless (Godard, 1960)
Jean-Luc Godard would go on to make many better films than this, his first, yet it is doubtful that any can be regarded as coming anywhere close to approaching its importance. The tale of a Parisian car-thief (Jean-Paul Belmondo) who kills a cop and then attempts to convince his American girlfriend (Jean Seberg) to flee the country with him, this is the definitive movie-as-love-letter-to-the-movies. With its charming amorality, off-the-wall humor, “anything goes” spirit and plethora of film references, Breathless is the definitive French New Wave movie, without which movies as we know them today would look very different.
Last Year at Marienbad (Resnais, 1961)
Alain Resnais followed up Hiroshima, Mon Amour by expanding on its innovative formal structure to create this audacious, intellectual “puzzle film.” A man and a woman (again unnamed) meet at the title resort where he attempts to convince her, against her protests, they had met and had an affair the previous year. As Marienbad progresses, we can never be sure if we are watching flashbacks, false memories or fantasies – or even which character might own them. Don’t let its reputation as a “cold,” “impenetrable” film deter you; there are many points of entry into this masterpiece, including the extraordinarily beautiful black-and-white cinematography, the sly humor of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s script and a great lead performance by the regal Delphine Seyrig.
Paris Belongs to Us (Rivette, 1961)
Anne, a literature student in late 1950s Paris, agrees to take part in a no-budget production of Shakespeare’s Pericles in order to get to the bottom of the mysterious suicide of an acquaintance and, in the process, uncovers a conspiracy that may or may not exist. Jacques Rivette’s first film contains all of the hallmarks of his more famous later work: extended running time, paranoid conspiracy theory plot, scenes of characters rehearsing a classic play and an almost inexplicably sinister tone.
Adieu Philippine (Rozier, 1962)
Unjustly unknown outside of France, Jacques Rozier’s uproarious comedy tells the story of a low-level T.V. technician who romances two aspiring actresses (who also happen to be best friends) while waiting to begin his mandatory military service. This satire of television, consumerism and “cold-hearted modern youth” effortlessly conjures up a spirit of youthfulness, spontaneity and fun that Truffaut’s more famous and similarly themed Jules and Jim has to labor mightily to try and equal.
Cleo from 5 to 7 (Varda, 1962)
Agnes Varda was the lone female member of the French New Wave and Cleo from 5 to 7 is, in the apt words of Pauline Kael, “one of the few films directed by a woman in which the viewer can sense a difference.” The plot details the adventures of the title heroine between the hours of 5:00 and 7:00 pm as she awaits the results of medical tests that will determine if she has cancer. Clocking in at 90 minutes, this beautiful, astute character study also very nearly takes place in “real time.”
Jules and Jim (Truffaut, 1962)
Francois Truffaut’s comedy/drama about a menage-a-trois in World War I-era France was long considered a New Wave benchmark but, writing as someone who is not a Truffaut man, I don’t think it has aged particularly well; the filmmaking “playfulness” seems forced, the attempts at humanism and the shifts between comedy and tragedy too derivative of Truffaut’s idol Jean Renoir. Still, everyone should see this if only to understand how Truffaut represented the “mainstream face” of the New Wave, without which some of the movement’s less commercial prospects could never have been made.
Le Joli Mai (Marker, 1963)
Cinema vérité, French-style! The great cinematic essayist Chris Marker (who named himself after, you guessed it, the Magic Marker pen) spent the Spring of 1962 interviewing a diverse cross-section of the French public about the concept of “happiness”; incredibly, it was the first Spring of peace in France since 1939. The epic running time (two hours and 45 minutes) allows Marker to probe deep into the hopes and fears of an entire society.
Le Mepris (Contempt) (Godard, 1963)
The best movie ever made about making a movie (and no, I’m not forgetting 8 1/2), Jean-Luc Godard’s colorful, Italian-shot fantasia stars Michel Piccoli as a beleaguered screenwriter, Brigitte Bardot as his trophy wife, Jack Palance as a blowhard American producer and the great director Fritz Lang as himself, all of whom collide on an unlikely film adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey. Add in a magisterial score by George Delerue, one of the greatest ever written, and the end result is Godard’s finest early work.
Muriel (Resnais, 1963)
Two weeks in Boulogne with four characters – an antiques dealer (Delphine Seyrig again) and her stepson who are visited by her former lover and his alleged “niece” – all of whom are haunted by memories of the past. The culmination of Alain Resnais’ long running obsession with nonlinear editing and the difficulty of integrating the past into the present, this challenging film (arguably Resnais’ best) demands and handsomely rewards multiple viewings.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Demy, 1964)
Jacques Demy’s delightful but freakish musical in which there is no dancing but every line of dialogue is sung. Teenage Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve) must make tough decisions after being knocked up by her boyfriend who must deploy for a tour of duty in Algeria. The candy-box colors and attractive star cast consistently dazzle but this is a much darker and more serious film than its detractors would have you believe.
Pierrot le Fou (Godard, 1965)
A clear advance for Jean-Luc Godard as an artist, this mostly improvised romp follows an unhappily married man (Jean Paul Belmondo) who flees his bourgeois Parisian life and heads to the Riviera with a beautiful, mysterious stranger (Anna Karina) on the run from Algerian gangsters. Massively influential as a lovers-on-the-lam crime/road movie and a work of postmodern Pop Art.
La Collectionneuse (Rohmer, 1967)
A man intending to “do nothing” while vacationing in St. Tropez is tempted by a promiscuous stranger, the “collector” of the title in this witty, intellectual comedy. A milestone for Eric Rohmer for several reasons: it was his first commercial success, his first film shot in color (courtesy of genius cinematographer Nestor Almendros) and the first of his Six Moral Tales to attain feature-length status.
Weekend (Godard, 1967)
Jean-Luc Godard’s apocalyptic black comedy in which a bourgeois married couple’s weekend trip to the country begins with a traffic jam and ends in cannibalism. This provocative and angry satire of the barbarism lurking beneath the facade of Western civilization appropriately ends with the title “End of Cinema.” A cinematic equivalent of the novels of James Joyce.
The Young Girls of Rochefort (Demy, 1967)
My personal favorite Jacques Demy film is this wonderful musical, a sort of follow-up to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, in which twin sisters (real life sisters Catherine Deneuve and Francoise Dorleac) search for their ideal romantic partners in the colorful title town. Michel Legrand’s jazzy score is phenomenal and the tribute to golden age Hollywood musicals is made complete by an appearance from the legendary Gene Kelly.
The Smugglers (Moullet, 1968)
Luc Moullet’s delightfully amateurish slapstick comedy follows the misadventures of the title trio, an unnamed protagonist (Johnny Monteilhet) and the two girlfriends (Françoise Vatel and Monique Thiriet) he recruits to help him illegally transport packages (including Kodak film stock and LSD) and people (identified as artists and Jews) between two unnamed countries at war. There are a lot of deliberately fake-looking Godardian fight scenes as well as Tati-style gags involving sight and sound among the spectacularly beautiful mountain scenery. I’m almost embarrassed to admit how much I identify with this film — not on a personal level but as a director. More so than any other New Wave movie, seeing this made me feel that my own modest filmmaking efforts were justified.
La Femme Infidele (Chabrol, 1969)
A man suspects his wife of infidelity and has her followed by a private eye, setting off a suspenseful chain of events in which the lead characters find themselves “exchanging guilt” in the best Hitchcock tradition. Released in the midst of Claude Chabrol’s richest period (1968 – 1973), this simple, gripping thriller is perhaps the director’s most perfectly realized film.
L’amour Fou (Rivette, 1969)
A highpoint of both the French New Wave and the history of improvisational filmmaking, Jacques Rivette’s four hour plus opus charts the construction of a play (Racine’s Andromaque) as well as the disintegration of a marriage (that of the play’s director), alternating between 35mm and 16mm film stocks. As the film progresses and the cross-cutting slowly, inexorably achieves a terrifying velocity, L’amour Fou fully justifies Pauline Kael’s description as an “intellectual horror film.” The climactic orgy of sex and destruction has to be seen to be believed.
My Night at Maud’s (Rohmer, 1969)
A film that dramatizes Pascal’s “Wager theory” as Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Tritignant), a devout Catholic moves to a small town during Christmastime and decides to marry a beautiful blonde woman he spies while at mass. Later, he is introduced to Maud, a brunette divorcee who causes him to question his earlier resolve. Eric Rohmer was the king of intelligent, literate dialogue and this film, so profitably rooted in a specific time and place, is his finest hour. Also a great Christmas movie.
On the latest episode of Roger Ebert’s excellent new television show “Ebert Presents At the Movies” (a reboot of his earlier, long running “At the Movies” show), co-hosts Christy Lemire and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky each named five films that made them critics. Among the picks of the Chicago-based Vishnevetsky was Jean-Luc Godard’s massive eight part video opus Histoire(s) du Cinema. Not only did Vishnevetsky speak wisely and well about a work of art that more than one critic has referred to as the Finnegans Wake of the cinema, lucky viewers got to see a few ravishing clips of Godard’s monumentally important but deeply obscure work.
At the end of the segment Vishnevetsky slyly noted that while Histoire(s) du Cinema was not available on home video, it could be found “on the internet.” That a film critic on a nationally syndicated movie review show could recommend a work as formally innovative and intellectually audacious as Histoire(s) du Cinema, which must be illegally downloaded to be seen to boot (not that Godard cares about such things), is a good indication of the sea change that has recently occurred in American movie culture. It also offers further proof (if any more is necessary) that, contrary to all of the premature speculation about the “death” of either cinema or cinephilia, world cinema has actually entered a golden age approaching a realization of the “universal language” that Fritz Lang enthusiastically spoke about in the 1920s.
Coincidentally, only a few days before this episode of “Ebert Presents” aired, I illegally downloaded, for the first time, two movies I have been wanting to see for decades: Jacques Rivette’s legendary improvisational epics L’amour Fou and Out 1: Noli Me Tangere. Neither title has ever been officially released on home video in any format and neither has played theatrically anywhere near where I’ve lived. While the picture and sound quality of both titles is sorely lacking on the digital files on my computer, the greatness of the films somehow still manages to come through (to paraphrase something Godard once said about watching The Searchers on television decades ago). Is it an ideal way to view movies that were originally shot on film and intended for theatrical distribution? Of course not. But I am now able to see at least a facsimile of these films that may have otherwise eluded me indefinitely.
And, contrary to what some believe, the digital downloading of movies will not be the death of theatrical projection any more than home video has been. If given the opportunity, I will still jump at the chance to see Rivette’s movies projected, just as I recently shelled out money to see Polanski’s Repulsion in 35mm even though I already own Criterion’s superb blu-ray. Pronouncements of the death of cinema usually come from older critics who are lamenting the death of the specific means of how movies were distributed and exhibited when they first encountered and fell in love with the medium; in essence, they are lamenting nothing more than the loss of their own youth. As someone who rents movies regularly from two sources (Netflix and Facets), regularly purchases blu-rays and regularly goes to the movie theater, I see downloading as just another means of being able to experience cinema. I doubt that the primal experience of strangers congregating in the dark to see movies on a large screen will ever be completely replaced, even if those movies are eventually no longer seen via celluloid projection.
Another byproduct of cinephilia in the digital age: I have also not been experiencing Rivette’s endurance tests in a single viewing the way they were originally intended to be seen (L’amour Fou is four and a half hours long and Out 1 is more than twice that length). Instead, I’ve been watching them in bite-sized chunks, a few minutes here and there on my laptop during downtime between going to work and, of course, watching other movies.
The “Ebert Presents” segment on Histoire(s) du Cinema can viewed here:
For my own edification, I recently put together a highly subjective list of what I consider to be the 50 best living film directors. Below you will find my top ten (with commentary on each and a citation of three essential works) as well as a list of forty runners-up (for whom I cite two essential works). As a longtime cinephile and compulsive list-maker, I’m a sucker for this kind of parlor game. So who doesn’t deserve to be here and who did I egregiously omit? Feel free to comment below!
The Top 10 (preferential order):
10. Clint Eastwood, USA, born May 31, 1930
Clint Eastwood’s slow, quiet transformation from stoic action movie icon to morally conscientious filmmaker who has thoughtfully deconstructed his own macho screen persona and examined the consequences of violence (in both movies and life) is one of the most gratifying success stories in the history of American film. In spite of the fascinating, occasionally brilliant work that Eastwood-the-director turned in from the early 1970s through the early 2000s (especially the one-two punch of Unforgiven and A Perfect World), it wasn’t until after 2002′s Blood Work, when he retired the Dirty Harry persona for good, that Eastwood began making his best films – dark, artful melodramas like Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Letters from Iwo Jima and that most elegiac of elegies, Gran Torino. In recent interviews he has vowed to keep working as long as Manoel de Oliveira. Here’s hoping.
Essential work: Unforgiven (1992), Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), J. Edgar (2011)
9. Wong Kar-Wai, Hong Kong, born 07/17/1956
Seeing Wong Kar-Wai’s Ashes of Time at Chicago’s old Film Center in February of 1995 remains one of the great film-going experiences of my life. I emerged from the theater as if from a strange and wonderful dream; who the devil made this beguiling historical epic with its blurry, impressionistic fight scenes, mournful meditations on unrequited love and Ennio Morricone-style synthesizer score? Witnessing Wong’s signature style continue to unfold over poppy, contemporary, urban stories like Chungking Express, Fallen Angels and Happy Together was like awaiting new album releases from a favorite rock band, one that had managed to miraculously recapture the zeitgeist over and over again. Then with In the Mood for Love and 2046, Wong shifted gears, applying a more formal, stately and restrained visual style to his pet themes of romantic longing and the passage of time. After the minor, American-made My Blueberry Nights, Wong has returned to Hong Kong for a years-in-the-making, soon-to-be-released kung fu film, The Grand Master. I can’t wait.
Essential work: Chungking Express (1994), The Ashes of Time (1994), In the Mood for Love (2000)
8. David Lynch, USA, born 01/20/1946
David Lynch is the only true surrealist currently working in the American cinema and thus his contribution to the medium has been invaluable. The only thing more impressive than Lynch’s impeccable painterly eye is his ironclad integrity; after selling out with Dune in 1984, Lynch has always ploughed his own furrow, seemingly regardless of critical or audience expectations. This has led to periods where “Jimmy Stewart from Mars” has found himself commercially unpopular and/or critically unfashionable (in particular during the seven years encompassing the American release of Wild at Heart through the tepid responses to Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me and Lost Highway). But, my God, just look at the career highlights that can result when a boundary-pushing director works without a net: Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet, The Straight Story and the mind-blowing, experimental “twin peaks” of Mulholland Drive and INLAND EMPIRE.
Essential work: Eraserhead (1977), Blue Velvet (1986), Mulholland Drive (2002)
7. Jacques Rivette, France, born 03/01/1928
Of the five core directors of the Nouvelle Vague, Jacques Rivette got off to the slowest start. Paris Belongs to Us and The Nun are good small movies but neither hinted at the greatness, the innovation or the mammoth, elaborately conceived structures of what was to come. In the four hour plus L’amour Four (1969), the twelve and a half hour Out 1 (1971) and the relatively lean three hour and thirteen minute Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), Rivette pushed the cinematic medium as far as it could go. Each of these films exhaustively explored different facets of Rivette’s obsessions: the nature of acting, the relationship between performance and life, the paranoid conspiracy theory plot, the concept of secret societies, and the decline of the revolutionary ideals of May 1968. Out 1 alone confirms Rivette’s status as one of the greatest living directors; the extensive running time allows four seemingly separate narrative strands to very slowly become entwined in a manner that is reminiscent of literature more than cinema (Balzac’s La Comédie humaine is repeatedly referenced throughout) while simultaneously serving up pleasures that are uniquely, sublimely cinematic. The movies Rivette made between 1969 and 1974 are the apotheosis of the French New Wave. If his more recent work feels like a conventional retread of the same material, it is pointless to feel disappointed. Rivette set the bar impossibly high for everyone, including himself.
Essential work: L’amour Fou (1969), Out 1 (1971), Celine and Julie Go Boating (Céline et Julie vont en bateau – Phantom Ladies Over Paris) (1974)
6. Martin Scorsese, USA, born 11/17/1942
Martin Scorsese is the archetypal American cinephile-filmmaker, a passionate artist whose movies are informed as much by his encyclopedic knowledge of the history of cinema as they are by his Catholic upbringing in New York’s Little Italy. He may always be best remembered for his work during the “movie brat” era (especially the modern classics Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull), when he brought a European art-film sensibility to classic Hollywood genre fare and helped redefine American screen acting besides. But apart from a few missteps here and there (New York, New York, Bringing Out the Dead), the man’s entire career has been a model of intelligent, dependable craftsmanship, shot through with an obvious love for the act of making movies. I’m especially grateful for recent works like No Direction Home: Bob Dylan and Shutter Island (by far the best of his collaborations with Leonardo DiCaprio). Whatever Scorsese does in the future, I’ll be there opening weekend.
Essential work: Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990)
5. Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, born 07/22/1940
When Iranian cinema began making inroads at international film festivals in the 1990s, Abbas Kiarostami was its chief ambassador. His “Koker Trilogy,” comprised of Where is the Friend’s Home, Life and Nothing More and Through the Olive Trees, was for many viewers, including me, an exhilarating introduction to an heretofore unknown world of neo-neorealist cinema: one that astonished with its unique mixture of humanism and self-reflexivity, naturalistic performances and documentary-style filmmaking techniques. Little did we realize this trilogy was merely the tip of the iceberg; from Close-Up to The Taste of Cherry to The Wind Will Carry Us to more experimental works like Ten and Shirin, to last year’s splendiferous Certified Copy, no other filmmaker of the past two decades, not even Jean-Luc Godard, has so intelligently and slyly provoked audiences to interrogate their own responses to the images and sounds of his filmography.
Essential work: Close-Up (1991), The Taste of Cherry (1997), Certified Copy (Copie conforme) (2010)
4. Alain Resnais, France, born 06/03/1922
Although often lumped in with the Nouvelle Vague, Alain Resnais was a successful documentary filmmaker years before his brethren at Cahiers du Cinema took up cameras and started doing it for themselves. Among these early works, Night and Fog remains, for my money, the best movie ever made about the holocaust. That film’s elegant use of tracking shots and cross-cutting foreshadowed the intellectually provocative and formally dazzling qualities of Resnais’ classic early narrative features: Hiroshima mon amour, Last Year at Marienbad and Muriel. Resnais’ brilliant editing schemes, in which chronologically scrambled stories dovetail with his cherished theme of subjective memory, have been massively influential on the last half-century of world cinema. After the underrated La Guerre est finie in 1968, Resnais’ output became more hit or miss (I personally have no use for Stavisky or Smoking/No Smoking); but later masterworks like Mon Oncle d’Amerique and Wild Reeds are disturbing, hilarious, deeply satisfying examinations of human behavior that reconfirm Resnais’ status as a giant of the medium.
Essential work: Last Year at Marienbad (L’annee dernier a Marienbad) (1961), Muriel (1963), Mon Oncle d’Amerique (1980)
3. Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Taiwan, born 04/08/1947
Barring John Ford, I doubt that any other film director has ever created a body of work that functions as such a thorough and highly personal exploration of his country’s history. Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s unmistakable visual style, predicated on long takes, long shots and low-key performances, chronicles Taiwan from the beginning of the 20th century (the second segment of Three Times), through World War II (Good Men, Good Women), to Taiwan’s handover from Japan to China in the tumultuous postwar years (City of Sadness), to the migration of rural Taiwanese people to city centers in the 1960s (Dust in the Wind), to the depiction of aimless, disaffected Taipei youth at the turn of the millenium (Goodbye, South, Goodbye), to 21st century global snapshots of expatriate Taiwanese in Japan (Cafe Lumiere) and France (Flight of the Red Balloon). But like his hero Yasujiro Ozu, who was once considered “too Japanese” by western film distributors, Hou’s movies are timeless and universal enough to have shaken this American viewer to the core.
Essential work: Goodbye South Goodbye (1996), The Flowers of Shanghai (1998), Three Times (2005)
2. Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal, born 12/11/1908
At 102 years of age, Manoel de Oliveira is by far the oldest director on this list. Incredibly, unlike a lot of the other filmmakers cited here (many of whom have either officially or unofficially retired), Oliveira is not only still active but prolific, having made at least one feature a year since 1990. This recent spate of films constitutes more than half of his body of work, which is extremely impressive considering he started directing in the silent era. Oliveira’s style is not for everyone: his movies, made in conscious opposition to Hollywood conventions, tend to be slow, deliberately paced literary adaptations centered on the theme of doomed love. But if you can find yourself in tune with the rhythm of his unique brand of filmmaking, Oliveira’s best work – including Abraham’s Valley (by far the best film adaptation of Madame Bovary I know of) and the brilliant triptych Anxiety (Inquietude) – can be both intensely cinematic and soul-stirring.
Essential work: Abraham’s Valley (Vale Abraao) (1993), Anxiety (Inquietude) (1998), The Strange Case of Angelica (O Estranho Caso de Angélica) (2010)
1. Jean-Luc Godard, France/Switzerland, born 12/03/1930
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen! Would you please welcome the poet laureate of the cinema, the voice of the promise of the ’60′s counterculture, the guy who forced film criticism into bed with filmmaking and revolutionized the language of movies, who found Marxism and disappeared into a haze of armchair theorizing, who emerged to find video, who was written off as a has-been by the end of the ’70s and suddenly shifted gears, releasing some of the strongest work of his career beginning in the late ’80s…Ladies and gentlemen, Monsieur Jean-Luc ‘Cinema’ Godard!”
Essential work: Contempt (Le Mepris) (1963), Pierrot le Fou (1965), Histoire(s) du Cinema (1989 – 1998)
Runners-Up (alphabetical by family name)
11. Chantal Akerman (Belgium/France)
Essential work: Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), La Captive (2000)
12. Woody Allen (USA)
Essential work: Manhattan (1979), Husbands and Wives (1992)
13. Paul Thomas Anderson (USA)
Essential work: Boogie Nights (1997), There Will Be Blood (2007)
14. Olivier Assayas (France)
Essential work: Summer Hours (L’heure d’été) (2008), Something in the Air (Apre mai) 2012
15. Marco Bellocchio (Italy)
Essential work: Fists in the Pocket (I pugni in tasca) (1965), Vincere (2009)
16. Kathryn Bigelow (USA)
Essential work: The Hurt Locker (2008), Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
17. Bong Joon-ho (S. Korea)
Essential work: Memories of Murder (2003), The Host (2006)
18. Charles Burnett (USA)
Essential work: Killer of Sheep (1977), To Sleep with Anger (1990)
19. Jane Campion (Australia)
Essential work: The Piano (1993), Bright Star (2009)
20. John Carpenter (USA)
Essential work: Halloween (1978), The Thing (1982)
21. Pedro Costa (Portugal)
Essential work: In Vanda’s Room (No Quarto da Vanda) (2000), Change Nothing (Ne Change Rien) (2009)
22. David Cronenberg (Canada)
Essential work: A History of Violence (2005), Eastern Promises (2007)
23. Guillermo del Toro (Mexico/USA)
Essential work: The Devil’s Backbone (El Espinazo del diablo) (2002), Pan’s Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno) (2006)
24. Claire Denis (France)
Essential work: Beau Travail (1999), The Intruder (L’intrus) (2004)
25. Arnaud Desplechin (France)
Essential work: Kings and Queen (Rois et reine) (2004), A Christmas Tale (Un conte de Noel) (2008)
26. Stanley Donen (USA)
Essential work: On the Town (1949), Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
27. Victor Erice (Spain)
Essential work: The Spirt of the Beehive (El espíritu de la colmena) (1973), Dream of Light (El sol del membrillo) (1992)
28. Abel Ferrara (USA)
Essential work: Bad Lieutenant (1992), Mary (2005)
29. David Fincher (USA)
Essential work: Zodiac (2007), The Social Network (2010)
30. Monte Hellman (USA)
Essential work: Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), Road to Nowhere (2010)
31. Werner Herzog (Germany)
Essential work: Aguirre: The Wrath of God (Don Lope de Aguirre) (1972), The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle) (1974)
32. Jia Zhangke (China)
Essential work: The World (2004), Still Life (2006)
33. Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Japan)
Essential work: Cure (1997), Tokyo Sonata (2008)
34. Mike Leigh (UK)
Essential work: Naked (1993), Secrets and Lies (1996)
35. Jerry Lewis (USA)
Essential work: The Ladies Man (1961), The Nutty Professor (1963)
36. Richard Linklater (USA)
Essential work: Before Sunset (2004), Bernie (2011)
37. Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Iran)
Essential work: The Cyclist (1987), A Moment of Innocence (1996)
38. Terrence Malick (USA)
Essential work: Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998)
39. Lucrecia Martel (Argentina)
Essential work: The Holy Girl (La nina santa) (2004), The Headless Woman (La mujer sin cabeza) (2008)
40. Takashi Miike (Japan)
Essential work: The Bird People in China (1998), Ichi the Killer (2002)
41. Jafar Panahi (Iran)
Essential work: The Circle (2000), Offside (2006)
42. Park Chan-wook (S. Korea)
Essential work: JSA: Joint Security Area (2000), Oldboy (2003)
43. Roman Polanski (Poland/USA)
Essential work: Chinatown (1974), Bitter Moon (1992)
44. Quentin Tarantino (USA)
Essential work: Pulp Fiction (1994), Jackie Brown (1997)
45. Bela Tarr (Hungary)
Essential work: Satantango (1994), The Turin Horse (2011)
46. Tsai Ming-Liang (Taiwan)
Essential work: The River (1997), Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003)
47. Johnnie To (Hong Kong)
Essential work: The Mission (1999), Life Without Principle (2011)
48. Agnes Varda (France)
Essential work: Cleo from 5 to 7 (Cléo de 5 à 7) (1962), Vagabond (1985)
49. Paul Verhoeven (Holland/USA)
Essential work: Turkish Delight (Turks fruit) (1973), Black Book (Zwartboek) (2006)
50. Apichatpong Weerashathekul (Thailand)
Essential work: Syndromes and a Century (2007), Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)
Filmmakers once on this list who have since passed away:
Chris Marker (France), born 02/29/1 – died 07/29/12
Essential work: Le joli mai (1963), Sans Soleil (1983)
Nagisa Oshima (Japan), born 03/31/1932 – died 01/15/2013
With his wild, provocative, darkly humorous, misanthropic but highly personal brand of political cinema, Nagisa Oshima single-handedly dragged Japanese movies kicking and screaming into the modern age. No other director was willing or able to depict the pessimism of post-war Japanese society with the savage incisiveness of early Oshima classics like The Sun’s Burial and Cruel Story of Youth. As with most provocateurs, Oshima’s movies became increasingly extreme over time and while he’s occasionally run off the rails (I think it’s particularly regrettable that In the Realm of the Senses remains his best known work), he’s also made more than his share of trailblazing masterpieces; my personal favorites are Death By Hanging, an infernally funny examination of Japanese racism against Koreans, and his likely swan song, the mysterious and haunting “gay samurai” film Taboo. Reportedly in ill-health, it is doubtful Oshima will direct again.
Essential work: The Sun’s Burial (1960), Boy (1969), Taboo (1999)
“I consider my Breathless as being the end of old cinema. Destroying all the old principles rather than creating something new.”
- Jean-Luc Godard, 1961
So much has been written and said about Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, one of the indisputable landmarks of world cinema (right up there with The Birth of a Nation, Sunrise and Citizen Kane), that the prospect of lecturing or writing about it as a film studies instructor seems a daunting challenge. Nonetheless, Criterion’s recent Blu-ray release offers an opportunity to see Godard’s revolutionary film with fresh eyes — for the low-budget, goofy and freewheeling good time that it is. Since falling under its spell at the age of nineteen, I have seen Breathless more than forty times in every conceivable format, with each new viewing feeling like a visit with a dear, old friend. And so it is that I feel highly qualified to say that this crisp new high definition transfer yields heretofore unseen details, making an already timeless film feel fresher and more modern than ever.
Based on a treatment by Francois Truffaut, Breathless tells the story of Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a small-time Parisian car thief who kills a cop for no good reason and then spends the rest of the film half-heartedly avoiding a police dragnet while simultaneously attempting to convince his American girlfriend, Patricia (Jean Seberg), to run away to Italy with him. Although the tale is familiar, the telling is not; eschewing the Hollywood sheen one might expect from such typical crime movie material, Breathless instead self-consciously juxtaposes “movie” elements with “real life” elements in a way that reflects the exuberantly playful and intellectually provocative spirit of the then-29 year old Godard. Incredibly, it was his first feature, although the years he had spent as a film critic for Cahiers du Cinema must have prepared him well for conceiving radical new ways to employ sound and image.
Unlike most of Godard’s challenging, post-1967 work (for which I mostly have tremendous respect), Breathless works precisely because its experimental/formal aspects (such as the celebrated use of the jump-cut) are balanced against a portrait of young love enacted by a pair of enormously charismatic performers. This is most obvious during the 25 minute real-time sequence where Michel and Patricia cavort in the tiny hotel room where she is staying; as they hop in and out of bed, listen to the radio, smoke endless cigarettes and talk about everything under the sun, Patricia continually attempts to engage Michel in discussions of her favorite artists: Mozart, Faulkner and Renoir (the elder). For his part, Michel mostly attempts to cajole Patricia into taking off her clothes. The restless, youthful energy of Belmondo and Seberg makes us not care that the film’s plot has temporarily stopped dead in its tracks. And why shouldn’t it? We know it’s just a movie anyway, as Godard is all too happy to remind us, and who doesn’t want to just hang out with these attractive and interesting people for an extended period of time?
Like most early New Wave films, Breathless was shot quickly and cheaply on location, giving the film an incredible documentary value. Godard and master cinematographer Raoul Coutard use natural lighting, handheld camera and extensive tracking shots (most of which were taken with a hidden camera) to make the streets of Paris come alive. In both this respect, and in what might be called its willingness to “de-center” the plot, Breathless resembles nothing so much as the Italian Neo-realist films of Godard’s hero Roberto Rossellini. However, unlike Rome, Open City or Paisan, which are downbeat and even relentlessly bleak in their depiction of social problems, Breathless is an upbeat and joyous celebration of life, which is fitting given the drastically different social and economic conditions between 1940s Rome and 1950s Paris. Nevertheless, Godard’s attempt to bring to fruition the paradoxical concept of “French Neo-realism” (a phrase he had perversely used as a critic to describe Jacques Tati’s Jour de Fete) is a good example of both his audacity and his impish sense of humor.
The most radical aspect of Breathless, although obviously less impactful today, is its self-reflexivity. Throughout the movie Godard employs Brechtian distancing devices that constantly remind us that we are watching a movie. These range from having Michel directly address the camera (“Faire foutre!”), and thereby breaking the fourth wall, to the more subtle ways that Godard dissolves the line between character and performer so that we end up with, in Godard’s own words, a documentary about the actors; this is true not only of Michel/Belmondo and Patricia/Seberg but also of Parvelescu the arrogant novelist, played by ace French director Jean-Pierre Melville (the first in a long line of older, sage-like figures in Godard). The most obvious example of Godard’s proclivity for self-reflexivity however, is the aforementioned jump-cut, where frames have been pulled from the middle of shots during the editing process. What had previously seemed like a mistake in the work of other directors gives Breathless its very modern and dynamic sense of pacing, a rhythm that one critic has likened to a needle skipping across a record.
Speaking personally, I will always remember Breathless as the movie that made me fall deeper in love with the film medium. Much like how the music of Bob Dylan sent me on a journey of discovery through traditional folk and blues music, Godard’s film performed for me the crucial function of unlocking the secret history of cinema. How could I not want to track down every reference in this movie-mad movie in which every frame seemed so pregnant with meaning, where affectionate nods to Monogram Pictures, Humphrey Bogart, Bob le Flambeur, They Live By Night, The Harder They Fall, Whirlpool and Forty Guns combine and explode in a giddy post-modern cocktail (before the concept even existed)?
Criterion’s Blu-ray release of Breathless, as with all of their Blu-ray releases so far, is exemplary. The film’s charcoal gray palette has a thicker, richer texture than even their very good standard DVD release from a couple years ago. The film-grain quality is pleasing and fine object detail is drastically improved. As someone who first saw Breathless on the old “Connoisseur” VHS label, I can only imagine how the Blu-ray will impress a whole new generation of young cinephiles. If there is one drawback to this new release of Breathless, it’s that Criterion has failed to correct some of the minor English subtitle inaccuracies, carried over wholesale from the DVD. For instance, Patricia’s line to Michel, “Say something nice” should be translated as “Tell me something nice” in order for Godard’s reference to Johnny Guitar to make sense. And, let’s face it, the French “faire foutre” should be translated not as “get stuffed” (a phrase no one actually uses), but instead as the more accurate and common expression of “go fuck yourself.”