There was before Breathless, and there was after Breathless. Jean-Luc Godard burst onto the film scene in 1960 with this jazzy, free-form, and sexy homage to the American film genres that inspired him as a writer for Cahiers du cinéma. With its lack of polish, surplus of attitude, anything-goes crime narrative, and effervescent young stars Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg, Breathless helped launch the French New Wave and ensured that cinema would never be the same.
The Criterion Collection upgrades another of their staple titles to 4K, presenting Jean-Luc Goddard’s seminal film Breathless in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1 on a dual-layer, BD-66 disc. The 2160p/24hz ultra high-definition presentation (with Dolby Vision) is sourced from a new 4K restoration conducted by StudioCanal, taken from a scan of the 35mm original camera negative. A 35mm fine-grain master positive was also used to fill in where needed. Criterion also includes a standard dual-layer Blu-ray presenting a 1080p film presentation alongside all of the release’s special features. The disc is an exact duplicate of the one that appeared in Criterion’s Blu-ray and Dual-Format editions, meaning it uses the 2007 restoration performed by Criterion, not the new one. Criterion has also removed the Timeline feature from the 4K disc (which they have indicated they will be doing from here on out), but it remains on the Blu-ray.
I still think the old high-def presentation is pleasing, especially when I recall the original Fox Lorber DVD presentation (which gives me a “Sideshow Bob” like shudder when I think about it). Still, there’s no denying it’s severely dated now. It’s sharp and clean, it’s just that compression could be significantly better. Contrast and black levels can also be wonky at times. This new 4K presentation, I’m delighted to report, fixes all of that and then some. It should come as no surprise when I say that the improved resolution alone cleans up a lot on its own, cleaning up grain significantly and better rendering the finer details. Yet it ends up being the improved contrast and dynamic range (further enhanced by HDR and Dolby Vision) that delivers the presentation’s most considerable boost. The old high-def presentation did an okay job regarding grayscale, but there are moments when things now look a little blown out, and the blacks can get murky. Though some shots here still deliver grayer blacks (which I’m sure are inherent to the source due to lighting conditions), the blacks can look much richer, and the improved range in contrast helps several darker sequences, specifically the one when Jean Seberg’s character attempts to hide in a theater auditorium that is only illuminated by the light emitting from the projection room. The highlights and the shadow details are so much sharper, with the grain in the sequence also looking significantly cleaner, nowhere near as chunky as what the old high-def presentation afforded. The nighttime shots on the Paris streets, illuminated by streetlamps, also look striking.
Daytime sequences also benefit significantly, the grays showing far more range while blending more smoothly. Highlights also look fantastic, with nice sharp pops of light bouncing off reflective surfaces, the chrome off of Jean-Paul Belmondo’s car, for instance. Whites end up being a bit rarer here, admittedly, and the image does come off a bit darker compared to previous presentations (outside of Fox Lorber’s terrible DVD). Yet it all ends up giving the film a richer photographic look, better than any standard Blu-ray could ever hope to accomplish.
The restoration has been more comprehensive, with only a few minor marks remaining. The film still has its rough edges, but that’s just how it is. I also can't say jumps from the original negative to the fine-grain were all that noticeable (a sequence with burned-in subtitles translating English dialogue is almost certainly from the later source). The encode itself also appears to be solid. I understand that StudioCanal’s 4K edition suffers from poor compression, and while I haven’t seen it—and therefore can’t compare—Criterion’s indeed doesn’t suffer from the same thing; the image appears clean with a natural-looking grain, even with HDR/Dolby Vision turned off.
In all, it’s the best the film has ever looked.
The film’s monaural soundtrack (presented in lossless single-channel PCM) has also been restored, and while I would say it does sound a bit cleaner and sharper when compared to the previous releases, I still think the source materials and post-production process (much of the dialogue was dubbed) ultimately limit it. Even if the range does sound a little wider, a hollowness to the film’s dialogue and background sound effects is still evident. The film’s “score” is also still a little edgy. There’s some background noise (which is expected), but no severe damage otherwise.
(As a note, there is a sequence with burned-in French subtitles translating English dialogue. This was also present in previous releases.)
All supplements can be found on the standard Blu-ray disc alongside the high-definition presentation of the film. The disc is the same one that Criterion included in their previous dual-format and solo Blu-ray editions, so all material has been ported over.
Things start again with archival interviews recorded around the time of the film’s release (or a couple of years after) running about 27-minutes in total, featuring a couple with Godard, one with Jean-Paul Belmondo, another with Jean Seberg, and then director Jean-Pierre Melville. Godard’s are a little more open than I was expecting, with the first segment recorded at Cannes featuring the director talking a little about the film and the festival, and then the second, an appearance on Cinéma, de notre temps, presenting the director reflecting on the film, if not so fondly.
Both segments for Belmondo and Seberg are the longer ones, with Belmondo talking about getting the role in Breathless, what the production was like, then moving on to his public image and influences (he even touches on his boxing career.) Seberg’s is a fascinating one as she spends most of the time talking more about her career before Breathless, specifically being discovered by Otto Preminger, cast in the title role of Saint Joan, and then the critical fallout afterward. She talks a little about the unorthodox shoot of Breathless and some of the frustrations she experienced.
Melville’s is one of the more interesting ones. In it, he comments on independent film and the French New Wave in general and offers his opinions on directors working at the time. He speaks fondly of Godard and Breathless, even commenting on his editing style, born out of necessity once he realized the film was too long in its original cut.
In all an excellent collection of interviews.
Criterion next includes a variety of recent interviews, starting with a segment featuring director of photography Raoul Coutard and assistant director Pierre Rissient. In this 22-minute piece, the two (recorded separately) cover the lifetime of the production from its early incarnation as a draft by Truffaut to its release. They both cover the various aspects of the filming, including what a typical day on the shoot was, technical advances, some of the unorthodox camera work, how they shot at night, and a lot of other technical tidbits, most related to photography. There’s some discussion about the cast, including issues with Seberg, who didn’t know what to make of Godard’s filmmaking style and what Godard was like on set. Coutard probably has more screen time, but both offer some fantastic first-hand accounts about the production, which sounded like a blast to be a part of.
The following interview is with, surprisingly, director D.A. Pennebaker. He, of course, has nothing to do directly with Breathless, and he instead recounts working with Godard on the film One P.M. Despite not having a clue what it was about (other than an attempt to turn a documentary around on itself), he most certainly enjoyed the experience. The primary purpose of this segment is for Pennebaker to flesh out the documentary-style elements of Breathless, building off of a statement Godard made where he said Breathless was “a documentary about Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg.” He then points out specific aspects of the film that feel influenced more by documentary than narrative films. Stylistically, this isn’t uncommon today, but it was unheard of then. The segment runs for about 10 minutes.
Next are a couple of video essays, the first being a 19-minute piece by Mark Rappaport on Jean Seberg. Mixed with clips, photos, interviews, and Rappaport’s narration, the video essay quickly goes over Seberg’s career, from her discovery by Preminger to becoming a pop culture icon following Breathless to her later career in film (which includes Paint Your Wagon and Airport) and suicide. The piece features bits presented elsewhere on the disc, but it’s a comprehensive and informative supplement.
Breathless as Criticism is an 11-minute essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum. This quick little bit follows a similar path to other features Criterion has produced for other Godard titles, with Rosenbaum pointing out some of the film and cultural references found throughout and pointing out bits that support Godard’s statement that he considers filmmaking another form of criticism. He also explains the dedication to Monogram Pictures at the beginning. It’s a short but fun piece that works like a primer on Godard’s style.
Next up is the most extensive supplement, the 88-minute documentary Chambre 12, hotel de Suede, made in 1993 by French television personality Claude Ventura. In it, Ventura revisits the production locations, starting with the hotel room used in the film, noting that the hotel will be demolished very soon. He also manages to get interviews with various people involved with the production, including Coutard, Claude Chabrol, Jean-Paul Belmondo, and Seberg’s widower, along with other crew members. Through these interviews, production notes, and documentation he could track down, he uncovers a lot about the unorthodox production, the director, and even the film’s producer Georges de Beauregard. Amusingly he even calls Godard early on in hopes of getting him to talk about the film, to which the director responds, “Dream on,” bids an au revoir, then hangs up. The interviews are excellent, and the documentation he digs up is terrific—which includes the actual case that inspired the film—it can feel long-winded at times and could benefit from some editing. That said, it’s still a superb inclusion and easily the most informative video piece I’ve seen about the film.
And then we come to Godard’s short film Charlotte et son Jules, made around the same time as Breathless. It stars Anne Collette as a young woman who quickly returns to her ex(?) boyfriend’s apartment, the former beau being played by Belmondo. During most of its 12-minute running time, Belmondo’s character carries on in a tirade once she enters his apartment, mocking her, putting her down, and then eventually pleading for her to stay, almost like a stream of consciousness, which Collette doesn’t give much mind to. It ends with a punchline, and as a whole, it’s a very playful film, with Godard testing out the medium. Some elements within it would be reused to an extent in Breathless, the most obvious being the entire conversation occurring in a small room, similar to the extended scene between Belmondo and Seberg in the hotel room. It’s a fun film and a great look at Godard’s early work.
The disc supplements then conclude with a theatrical trailer for the film.
And finally, the set closes with what appears to be the same 80-page booklet included with all previous releases, just with a thinner stock for the pages. Inside you will yet again find the same 2007 essay by Dudley Andrew on the impact Breathless had on the film world, followed by four reprinted interviews with Godard, who talks about the film (his opinion of it seems to differ as time went on) and the French New Wave. And finally, the most intriguing inclusions are Truffaut’s original treatment, based on a newspaper article he read, followed by Godard’s scenario. The basic “plot” of the film is still evident in Truffaut’s treatment, but the finished product still significantly differs from it. Still an excellent booklet, but there's nothing new outside of updated restoration information.
While the film may benefit from a commentary, I still find this to be an incredibly comprehensive edition of the film, doing a dutiful job of introducing the film to newcomers and covering the film’s undeniable impact.
There is no updated material to be found in the supplements, but the new 4K presentation looks stunning.