Film Reviews

Breathless (1960) – 60th Anniversary Edition – Blu-ray Review

New from Studiocanal is a 60th anniversary release for Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (or À bout de souffle).  Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo is a young criminal – a petty thief.  On the run after stealing a car in Marseille (which he intends to sell in Paris), then shooting a pursuing police officer, he seeks out a love interest – the American, Patricia (Jean Seberg) – in the French capital.

As Patricia hides Michel from the authorities, Michel works both to seduce her and to call in money owed to him, in order to fund a new life in Italy.  As Michel seeks greater stability, eventually, Patricia will learn the truth about Michel’s life of crime, and then have to make a decision about where her loyalties lie.

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Breathless has been newly restored in 4k, with a clean transfer, still maintaining a nice layer of grain: it is always a relief to see such restorations eschew the use of excessive digital noise reduction.  This is accompanied by a clear, clean stereo soundtrack perfect for showcasing the nimble, jazz-driven – yet sometimes lush and romantic – Martial Solal score.

For those yet to view the film, it is worth seeing – outside of its historical context (as it is a central to the French New Wave movement of the era, and was Godard’s feature debut) – for Belmondo alone.  From the early escape scene as he drives along a French country road, talking to himself, and declining to pick-up two female hitchhikers as they are deemed to be too ugly, this is an intensely charming performer, with screen presence to burn.  It is wise to go in knowing as little as possible if this is the case: if not, this is a release that showcases an enduring classic with fine picture and sound quality.

The Extras for this release kick off with ‘Still not…Breathless’.  At 33 minutes, this is, chiefly, a collection of talking heads, featuring contributors from French cinema including Michel Hazanavicius and Christopher Lambert.  They discuss their memories of the film.  Beginning with anecdotes about how they first encountered the film, it moves on quickly to a range of thoughts of just why they consider the film so special, so innovative; with fourth wall breaking getting a chapter of its own, for example.

A good mix of contributors ensures that observations on the work range from the instinctive and emotional, to the technical – focusing on everything from camera work and editing, to the effect it had on them as young men.  The big selling point of this is the quality of contributor, with Hazanavicius, for example, being an Oscar winner, for The Artist.  This is interspersed with short soundbites from people directly involved with the film, and one or two from outside French cinema with, for example, Robert Pattinson making a short appearance.

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Next up is a presentation on the film by Colin MacCabe.  Not that you would know from the screen, but MacCabe is a British professor of English and film at the University of Pittsburgh.  At less than five minutes, this is a slight, insubstantial extra, with just enough from MacCabe to wish he had a much greater involvement in this release.

‘Room 12, Hotel de Suede’ is a 79-minute documentary from 1993.  French journalist Claude Ventura visits the titular room one week before its scheduled demolition, then seeks to contact as many of the surviving participants as possible.  When Jean-Luc Godard tells him to “dream on” in an abrupt telephone call, we seem to be off to a rocky start.  In the event, monotone narration can’t entirely disguise a very slightly playful tone, as Ventura goes as far as recreating certain shots from the film.  A committed man, Claude even visit Switzerland in pursuit of information and insights.

Although very much standard definition – this looks like the 90’s TV feature it so clearly is – is a surprisingly atmospheric piece, with Ventura often coming off something like a detective from film noir, even if the music is so clearly French New Wave.  There is something of the academic about him, as he works to get his hands on as much contemporary documentation as possible.

Although not new, this is the big draw amongst the bonus features for this release.  At this point, the film was 33 years of age, with many of the contributors still alive to discuss their memories.  The filmmaker does a great job of putting them at ease, meeting them wherever convenient – even over the phone – and letting them talk, only prompting as necessary.  As years pass, these insights become precious historical record.  It is wise that this is added to any anniversary release.

Tempo was a British biographical show running from 1961-1968, from which this release shares a 16-minute episode from 1965 (originally longer, as we are told parts of it are missing, or unavailable due to legal constraints) profiling Godard.  This is a perfectly serviceable extra, given greater weight by being made during his career, with only five years having elapsed since the release of Breathless.  This is the sole extra, also, to refer to the almost absurdly small budget for which the film was produced.

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‘Introduction with Jefferson Hack’:  Hack is the creator and publisher of Dazed and Confused magazine.  His section is shot on the street in London, in black and white, as he talks directly to camera, over the course of around eight minutes.  It is a little like the Alex Cox introductions to the 1988-2000 BBC film series, Moviedrome: personal, yet feeling almost ad hoc, and using a short space of time effectively.  Rounding off the bonus features is a trailer: one seemingly put together for this release,

This is a fine release, with a great cast of contributors, paying tribute to a well-restored work central to an understanding of 20th Century World Cinema, and French New Wave in particular.  Few of the new features are of stand-out quality, but they are just about good enough to complement a couple of fine archival features, and feature enough people of star quality to remind us that this is a very special release in French cinema.

Breathless 60th Anniversary Collector’s Edition is out now on Blu-ray from Studiocanal.

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