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Culture Zohn: The Enduring Magic of Breathless

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The Enduring Magic of Breathless
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When I arrived in Paris for my junior year abroad, Jean Luc Godard's film Breathless (A Bout de Souffle), with its delicious combination of le gangster and l'amour, was still in constant repetition at the Palais de Chaillot Cinematheque, even ten years after its debut.

Breathless was a game-changer for everyone involved in its production--and for the rest of us too. Casually violent and casually sexual, this startling film--with its seemingly spontaneous action, and jumpy shooting style, and its original hero and heroine--was intoxicating. Since then, every American girl in Paris dreams of donning Jean Seberg's pixie haircut and stand-offish manner in hopes of luring a thuggishly handsome Frenchman like Jean Paul Belmondo's Michel, after only five (according to him), or three (according to her) nights of passion, who would then ask her to go on the lam to Rome with him. But not all of them were actually called Patricia.

Seberg's Patricia was everything I wanted to be: stylish, bilingual, alluring, sophisticated, independent--and deadly. We were both 20 years old and nothing else in my daily ration at the Cinematheque had come close to mapping out the way to shedding girlhood--and my nickname Patty--as this avatar in her black capris, ballet flats and Herald Tribune t-shirt. Seberg and her Patricia seduced me, and thousands like me, and made me believe that the fantasies I had long held about France and myself could come true. "Pa-Pa-Tricia" Michel sings in the first of many stolen cars on the way to claim her. I had never heard my name sung with such delightful anticipation.

On May 28th, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the film's release, a magical, newly restored, newly subtitled print supervised by Raoul Coutard, the film's original cinematographer, will open around the country.

The power of Breathless remains undiminished due to two main components: one, its utterly modern, edgy way of looking at the world and two, its charming, perfect cast. But if Godard was the father of this New Wave, "anything goes" mentality, then simple scrappiness was the mother of its invention. The legends about the production of Breathless are mostly true and part of cinema history: the four week summer of 1959 permit-less Paris shoot vouched for by Godard's fellow filmmakers, cameraman Coutard ferried about in a wheelchair because they couldn't afford to lay dolly tracks, the natural light, the dialog often written the night before or in a café at breakfast, or even shouted out by Godard for them to repeat as the camera was rolling since the entire film was dubbed later on, the random cuts which came out of post-production expediency.

Seberg was both the most expensive above-the-line item in the budget--and the most skeptical. She had come from two films (St Joan, Bonjour Tristesse) directed by Otto Preminger, "the tank" who "crushed her" but who at least could afford to give her real lines to memorize -- and who synched sound. Even with poor reviews in those films, Seberg had caught the gimlet eye of Francois Truffaut, who had already written a short treatment based on a newspaper story about a petty crook and his American journalist girlfriend. He had seen in her performance in Bonjour Tristesse the seeds of Patricia, the girl who just a few years later could break the hearts of thieves and not just her father's. Godard agreed: Patricia was just Cecile, three years later.

Belmondo, already a rising star, had been in a short film of Godard's and was eager to work with him again.

Paris was the third star of the film: the aerial views of Notre Dame, the streetlamps that go on as if Godard was God (he did get the city electric company to cooperate), the sporty cars circling the Arc De Triomphe, the cheap hotel, the cafés, the cobbled streets, the movie houses and the bars.

The films of the New Wave and its offshoots (largely 1960's) took as their ostensible subjects love, romance, intrigue, politics, war, betrayal, and the human condition -- of restlessness, of seeking, of trying to tie up the loose ends of life. Love wasn't exclusive, rather, it could theoretically be shared between more than the traditional couple. It could be violent and unpredictable or enigmatic, too.

The women of the Wave were, according to Truffaut, "easy to get, hard to keep." A handful of directors (Louis Malle, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, Truffaut, Godard et al) transformed the sexless/sexpot girls of the fifties (Doris Day/Marilyn Monroe) into complicated, idiosyncratic characters whose hearts were not always on display. But, they were quick learners--life was sometimes a deadly game and you could take matters into your own hands without waiting for permission. Yet though we confer on French women the secret to being sexy and mysterious, it was Seberg, an American girl who had the je ne sais quoi that made men willing to die for her--and the sang froid not to lose it when they did--who inhabited their very essence.

The film was made in the decade before the feminist movement but all the seeds were there. A woman could be emotional, intellectual, mysterious, free and intuitive, sexually liberated, spontaneous and passionate all at the same time -- instead of repressed and formulaic the way her mother was. This was a new definition of femininity. The film changed the face of cinema and the face of young women too.

Breathless seems at first to be Michel's story. Only one thing is planned: he is coming back to Paris to get his payoff and find Patricia, to ask her to come away with him, "if it's yes or no."

"She's funny," he tells a friend, not-so-successfully disguising the potency of his interest, "I like her." Efficiently, in the first few scenes, we see and hear his philosophy of life: he's a user, a player, a misogynist, a thief, mugger and murderer because it's expedient, not because it's premeditated. Women drivers are cowards, women hitchhikers aren't pretty enough, ex-girlfriends are convenient to filch a few hundred francs from, women accomplices are easily left behind. Patricia is right to be on guard.

Though Michel's look--the Bogey-inflected fedora, link bracelet, neck chains, patterned ties, and houndstooth jacket--made him the chicest wise guy in Paris, it was Seberg's style--which she donated to Patricia--from the slightly grown-out St. Joan cap to the capris, ballet flats, pleated schoolgirl's skirt, mini pouch handbag, striped bateau neck shirt, cats eye sunglasses, bobby socks and loafers and boyfriend shirt--that was modish catnip to French and American women, who, rarely united in their predilections, wanted to copy her hair and her gamine ways. (Seberg herself would go back to the crop each time she wanted to feel powerful, defiant and sexy.) But everyone in the film is constantly inspecting themselves or each other in mirrors or storefronts, taking inventory of body parts--Godard didn't want them to wear makeup, but he understood that how we present ourselves to the world matters very much.

Godard turned the classic trope of the innocent American girl abroad--see Daisy Miller--on its head. The guy is supposed to be the knowing, sly one but Patricia turns out to be the diabolique. Godard once said, "I have felt all my life that women are much more actively intelligent than men." Patricia is the one in control of whether she and Michel see each other or not, whether they sleep together or not. She claims to want them to be like Romeo and Juliet, but he's really the romantic, the one who complains that she left him without saying goodbye after their fling, because "it's nice to wake up next to a girl." She's the one who insists on her independence, worries about her freedom and who counts on her hand the number of men whom she's slept with.

Desirable or not (and is she ever--the film has some of the most alluring close-ups in cinema history), Patricia wants to be taken seriously as a journalist, a budding novelist. Her qualifications, however, are scant and depend more on the attentions of a senior journalist and the chic cinched button down dress and white gloves and pumps she wears to the office than a long CV. When she attends a press conference with a famous novelist (Jean-Pierre Melville, enlisted by Godard to emulate the kind of chats they had late at night about women), he is more interested in flirting with her than answering ponderous questions about his ambitions.

When she's not having men fall at her feet, Patricia lives in a tiny room at the Hotel de Suede, carefully, if cheaply, decorated with genre Picasso and Renoir posters. But tucked in amongst the fan magazines on her nightstand are Faulkner and Chopin. This is a girl who knows how to go high and low too.

The 25 minute long knee-bumping love scene in the tiny room still counts as one of the greats. It includes so many iconic sequences: Souris moi(Smile for me), the washing-up in the sink and bidet, the love-making under the tent-like sheets--hiding away like the elephants do.

But their trajectories are tragically opposed: Michel's done with running, from the cops and from love too, yet it's when they start running that Patricia seems to love him all the more. Still, it makes her breathless--her growing love for him becomes an impediment to her freedom. "Are you afraid?" he asks her as the police close in around him, "No it's too late to be afraid," she says, before betraying him. Godard once said that by "ratting" to the police she had emancipated herself. But the film's final moments split the difference.

Patricia: I don't want to be in love with you, that's why I called the police.

Michel: I stayed with you to make sure I was in love with you...or that I wasn't.

Patricia: And since I'm being mean to you, it proves I'm not in love with you.

Though the film is stylistically modern, it wears its heart on Belmondo's houndstooth sleeve, practically La Boheme in its 19th century in view of ill-fated love: between grief and nothing, choose grief; be both afraid of love but willing to die for it. It is filled with Godard's homages to the American films, filmmakers and film stars he so revered. Yet it feels up-to-the-minute in its message and method of delivery.

Godard would soon abandon this romantic, narrative kind of filmmaking, thinking himself both unsuited emotionally and politically, and he fell out with Truffaut as their views of the role of cinema sharply diverged. I must confess I followed Truffaut's more conventionally narrative path.

Seberg inhabited the fearless Patricia as long as she could, but when the more sensational news about her life began to trickle out, I would feel akin to her even then--her flight from her conventional hometown, her politics, her confusion about men and power, her drama queen history, her deep attachment to France and eventually her tragic propensity for overindulgence.

I was luckier though: my misadventures were not fatal.

Godard sent his message of testing the limits of things at the outset. "Live dangerously until the end" says the film poster (from Robert Aldrich's Ten Seconds to Hell) Michel passes as he leaves Patricia after their very first meeting in Paris.

In Los Angeles, Breathless will be playing at the Royal. In New York, it will be playing at Film Forum. Please check the website for a location near you. The Criterion Collection DVD is also wonderful, and has bonuses including an interview with Jean Seberg and other goodies, but it is not struck from the new print.