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Tag Archives: A bout de souffle

William Faulkner and “Parallel Editing”

“But the days themselves were unchanged—the same stationary recapitulation of golden interval between dawn and sunset, the long quiet identical day, the immaculate monotonous hierarchy of noons filled with the sun’s hot honey, through which the waning year drifted in red-and-yellow retrograde of hardwood leaves sourceless and going nowhere.”

— William Faulkner, If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem

williamWilliam Faulkner on the cover of Time magazine in 1939, the year The Wild Palms was published

Ever since I discovered his novels in the mid-1990s, when I was a college student in my early 20s, William Faulkner has been my favorite American author. I have always been a fan of formally innovative literature and I was immediately taken with Faulkner’s singular use of long, flowing sentences, multiple narrators, “stream-of-consciousness” interior monologues and, in the case of Absalom, Absalom! (my favorite of his works), the audacious juxtaposition of two separate narratives taking place many decades apart. Last month, for my recently formed “cigar and book club,” I had the good fortune to read for the first time If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, the celebrated novel that Faulkner originally published under the title The Wild Palms in 1939. If I Forget Thee, Jerusaelm was published just three years after Absalom, Absalom! and similarly alternates between two different narratives and sets of characters; being a relatively short novel that is told entirely in the third person, however, arguably makes Jersualem more accessible than its epic predecessor. Rediscovering Faulkner’s unique manner of juxtaposing multiple narrative threads got me wondering to what extent his sense of narrative structure, and that of the other “jazz age” American writers who rose to prominence in the 1920s, may have been influenced by the movies, even if only subconsciously. The cinema, the language of which had become incredibly sophisticated by the end of the silent era, must have seemed to possess an almost-magical ability to instantaneously zap viewers not only from one location to another but from one timeframe to another — in a way that had no precedent in the other narrative arts.

wildSex sells books too, folks.

“Parallel editing,” also known as cross-cutting, is a technique where filmmakers cut back and forth between scenes occurring in different locations, usually to suggest simultaneous action. Although instances of the technique can be found as early as in Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery from 1903, parallel editing did not become widespread until D.W. Griffith popularized it in the mid-1910s by using it to generate suspense during climactic chase/rescue scenes (the deplorable climax of The Birth of a Nation [1915], where the Ku Klux Klan rides to the rescue of white characters holed up in a cabin besieged by a black militia, is a good example). Griffith took the technique to greater and more ambitious poetic heights the following year with Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Through the Ages by freely intercutting between four separate stories taking place at different times throughout history: ancient Egypt during the fall of Babylon, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ at Golgotha, the massacre of the Huguenots in 16th century France, and a contemporary American story about a man wrongfully convicted of murder. Griffith’s provocative idea, so ahead of its time that it alienated contemporary audiences and resulted in costly financial failure from which the maverick director never recovered, was for viewers to infer thematic connections between the different stories based upon their juxtaposition. It is in a similar manner that Faulkner uses parallel editing in If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem a novel whose stories and characters may be unrelated on a narrative level (unlike those in Absalom, Absalom!) but are profoundly related on a thematic level.

intoleranceThe fall of Babylon in Intolerance

According to Faulkner expert Noel Polk: “Faulkner began work on (If I Forget Thee, Jersualem) in 1937 at first as a short story entitled ‘Wild Palms’ that was set on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Perceiving that there was material here for a longer work, he did not sell the story but began work on the novel and completed it in 1938. The typescripts and manuscripts in the Alderman Library demonstrate that Faulkner did not take two separate stories and interleave the, but rather wrote, in alternating stints, first a ‘Wild Palms’ section, then an ‘Old Man’ section. He invented the story of the ‘tall convict,’ he later said, as a counterpoint to the story of Harry and Charlotte, in an effort to maintain the intensity of the latter story without allowing it to become shrill.” Counterpoint is the operative word, for the “Old Man” sections, set in 1927, both mirror and are the polar opposite of “The Wild Palms” chapters, set a decade later. Among the points of comparison and contrast between the two stories:

— Both are about the relationship between a man and a pregnant woman (in “The Wild Palms,” the main characters, Harry and Charlotte, are romantically involved, in “The Old Man” the main characters, identified only as “the tall convict” and “the woman,” are strangers thrown together by chance).

— “The Wild Palms” begins in Louisiana before Harry and Charlotte travel out-of-state, eventually ending up in Mississippi. In “The Old Man,” the tall convict and the woman start off in Mississippi and wind up in Louisiana.

— Both stories deal with the themes of imprisonment, escape, sacrifice and redemption. In “The Wild Palms” Harry and Charlotte deliberately flee from the conformity of mainstream society and its constricting social roles (Charlotte leaves behind her husband and two young children). In “The Old Man,” the tall convict is a literal prisoner who is granted temporary freedom in order to rescue the pregnant woman who has been stranded at home by the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.

— “The Wild Palms” begins in the present, where Charlotte is on her deathbed from the abortion Harry has performed on her, before “flashing back” to tell the story of how they met and the events that led to this tragedy. “The Old Man” begins in the past, where the tall convict is temporarily released from captivity in order to help victims of the flood; but the narrative continually “flashes forward” into the future where the convict has returned to prison and is being questioned about his story by another prisoner, “the plump convict.”

— The protagonists have very different narrative arcs that nonetheless lead them to the same fate: a lengthy prison sentence. Harry is middle-class and well-educated (he nearly completed medical school) but has let his potential go to waste. He brings about the ruin of a family, and causes the deaths of his lover and unborn child. The tall convict, by contrast, is a blue-collar criminal who has “greatness thrust upon him”: he’s in jail for trying to rob a train but performs heroically in rescuing the pregnant woman, helping her give birth and delivering her to safety. He is repaid for his efforts by having 10 more years added on to his sentence.

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Postscript: The most famous movie reference to If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem occurs in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless when Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg) quotes to Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) what she claims is the novel’s last line: “Between grief and nothing, I will take grief.” This isn’t quite true: it’s actually the last line of the penultimate chapter. The true last line of If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, however, would have been a perfect last line for Michel: “‘Women, shit,’ the tall convict said.”

Works Cited

Faulkner, William, and Noel Polk. If I forget thee, Jerusalem: the wild palms. New York: Vintage International, 1995. Print.

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The Westbound / Breathless Movie Mystery

“Let’s go see a western.”
— Patricia (Jean Seberg) in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960)

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I’ve been a fan of ace American auteur Budd Boetticher ever since I saw The Tall T, a superior B-western from 1957 starring Boetticher’s favorite leading man Randolph Scott, on VHS back in the mid-1990s. That film, written by Burt Kennedy and based on a short story by Elmore Leonard (R.I.P.!), features this incredible exchange of dialogue: “How old are you, Billy?” / “I don’t know — young, mostly.” I’ve been a fan of the French iconoclast Jean-Luc Godard even longer: I first fell in love with Godard’s New Wave landmark Breathless in 1994 and, to this day, it is the movie I’ve seen more than any other. Mostly because I show it in film history classes, I’d estimate that I’ve seen Godard’s debut feature well over 60 times by now. Yet, in spite of the fact that I’ve always known Breathless uses a lesser-known Boetticher/Scott western, 1959’s Westbound, as an important reference point, I’d never gotten around to actually watching this western until recently — and this despite there being something about the reference that always struck me as curious in the extreme: when Patricia and Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo), the lovers-on-the-lam couple at the center of Breathless, duck into a movie theater showing Boetticher’s latest opus in order to avoid a police dragnet, the French-dubbed dialogue of the Westbound soundtrack sounds suspiciously poetic — and even rhymes! For example:

Male Voice: Beware, Jessica. On the kiss’s beveled edge, time is a void. Avoid, avoid memory’s broken pledge.

Female Voice: You’re wrong, sheriff. Your tale is noble and tragic like the mask of a tyrant. No drama so perilous or magnetic, no detail can make our love pathetic.

What I’ve always wondered is whether these crazy lines, which sound like something out of a Shakespeare comedy, were in fact an accurate representation of Westbound‘s dialogue or just more Godard tomfoolery (i.e., did he create a fake Westbound soundtrack expressly for Breathless?). So I put on my Sherlock Holmes deerstalker cap and headed to my local video store to investigate . . .

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Westbound was released toward the tail end of Budd Boetticher’s richest period as a Hollywood director, but it has always been considered a minor effort and has been somewhat difficult to see. It was not, for instance, part of the lavish 2008 DVD box set devoted to Boetticher and Scott, which included more well known titles such as the aforementioned Tall T, Decision at Sundown (1957), Buchanan Rides Alone (1958), Ride Lonesome (1959) and Comanche Station (1960) — not to mention an excellent new documentary, Budd Boetticher: A Man Can Do That, featuring testimonial interviews with the likes of Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino (who named Michael Madsen’s Kill Bill character, Budd, after Boetticher). The omission, however, may have had more to due with the vagaries of rights issues than anything: Westbound was originally released between Buchanan Rides Alone and Ride Lonesome but it was made for Warner Brothers while the other films included in the DVD box set were all made for Columbia. The only other Boetticher/Scott western not in the box set was their first collaboration, the highly regarded Seven Men from Now, which was also made for Warner Brothers. But, while Seven Men from Now was released to much fanfare in a “widescreen special collector’s edition” DVD from Warner Home Video in 2005, Westbound has been relegated to the more obscure “Warner Archive Collection” (i.e., it is available for sale only as a lower-quality DVD-R through their “burn-on-demand” program). Fortunately, Facets Multimedia in Chicago rents titles from the Warner Archive Collection and I was able to discover that, in spite of its second-class status, Westbound remains a very enjoyable entry in the Boetticher/Scott cycle.

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The plot of the Civil War-set Westbound centers on Randolph Scott’s John Hayes, a Union Cavalry captain who is given the perilous task of overseeing a long-range shipment of government gold via stagecoach. Hayes runs into trouble when the stage stops in Julesburg, a Colorado town full of Confederate sympathizers — including his former nemesis Clay Putnam (Andrew Duggan), a land baron who stole Hayes’ girl, Norma (Virginia Mayo), years earlier. The screenplay for Westbound was not written by Burt Kennedy (who penned four of the Boetticher/Scott movies) and it therefore lacks the terse poetry that provides the best films in the series with their most memorable lines (i.e., “There are some things a man can’t ride around,” or “A man can do that.”). It was written instead by one Bernie Giler and based on a story by Giler and Albert S. Le Vino. The Westbound script does not, however, deviate so much from the typical Kennedy/Boetticher template that it attains the poetic flights of fancy that Godard would have us believe. As much as it would please me to hear Viriginia Mayo, a pin-up with gravity-defying breasts, say that “Time is a void,” there is simply no dialogue anywhere in the movie that remotely resembles the “beveled edge” nonsense that we hear in Godard’s film. And yet every reference I’ve seen in books or academic essays alluding to the Westbound scene in Breathless assumes that the dialogue is genuine (with some critics even praising Godard for using an excerpt of dialogue from the Boetticher movie that seems to cleverly comment on the dilemma of Michel and Patricia!). There are several obvious clues, however, that Godard’s soundtrack is phony: first, there is no character named “Jessica” in Westbound. The only other female character aside from Norma is named Jeanie (Karen Steele). Then, there is the unlikely way that Godard’s poetic dialogue is spoken calmly in a sound mix that simultaneously features loud gunshots and a musical score of blaring horns, which seems to be Godard’s way of declaring “This is a western” rather than marking a serious attempt at recreating an authentic western soundtrack.

virginia

Critical confusion is somewhat understandable, however: Godard did, after all, use actual dialogue from Otto Preminger’s Whirlpool (this time in its original English-language track) earlier in the movie. These lines of dialogue can be heard in a scene in which Patricia, without Michel, attempts to elude the plainclothes cop who is following her by running into a cinema showing a revival of Preminger’s classic 1949 film noir. This scene occurs shortly after Patricia has lied to the police by denying that she knows anything about Michel’s whereabouts. The police, of course, don’t believe her and so the Whirlpool soundtrack does cleverly comment on Patricia’s situation:

Ann: No matter what I tell you, you don’t want to hear the truth. You won’t let me tell it. You think I’m lying!

Dr. Sutton: You are.

Ann: Oh no, Bill.

Dr. Sutton: Does this cheap parasite mean so much to you that you’re willing to risk everything to cover up for him?

In the 1950s Budd Boetticher was one of those Hollywood directors, along with John Ford and Anthony Mann, who helped to usher in a new era of “adult westerns” that featured more neurotic protagonists (Jimmy Stewart actually cries at the end of Mann’s masterpiece The Naked Spur) and dealt more explicitly with the genre’s darker themes of racism, colonialism and disillusionment (e.g., Ford’s The Searchers) than what had been possible in prewar Hollywood. In the 1960s Godard and his compatriots in the New Wave, as well as “art film” directors from other European countries, would usher in a new era of self-reflexivity and modernism that would break down the illusion of Hollywood’s “invisible” storytelling altogether. And yet, for one brief moment, on the beveled edge between these eras and continents, it was still happily possible for Jean-Luc Godard’s youthful and rebellious characters to attend — and appreciate — a new western by a Hollywood master like Boetticher.

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Postscript: Thanks to Adrian Martin for clarifying the mystery surrounding the origins of the Westbound dialogue in Breathless in the comments section below. For Ever Godard, the book containing Adrian’s essay, can be purchased from Amazon here: http://tinyurl.com/l7j5e4s


A French New Wave Primer

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.


New Blu Wave

“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 19, I have seen Breathless more than 40 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, Westbound and Forty Guns combine together and explode in a giddy post-modern cocktail (before the word “post-modernism” 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 English-speaker actually uses), but instead as the more accurate and common expression of “go fuck yourself.”

Check out Godard’s original theatrical trailer for Breathless via YouTube below:


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