There was before Breathless, and there was after Breathless. With its lack of polish, surplus of attitude, crackling personalities of rising stars Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg, and anything-goes crime narrative, Jean-Luc Godard's debut fashioned a simultaneous homage to and critique of the American film genres that influenced and rocked him as a film writer for Cahiers du cinema. Jazzy, free-form, and sexy, Breathless (A bout de soufflé) helped launch the French new wave and ensured cinema would never be the same.
To commemorate the film’s 50th anniversary, Criterion releases Jean-Luc Godard’s first feature-length film Breathless on Blu-ray, presenting the film in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 in a beautiful 1080/24hz high-def transfer on a dual-layer disc.
For years I suffered with Fox Lorber’s disastrous DVD edition, which featured a fuzzy, noisy image with a horrendous green tint. Criterion was finally able to release a new 2-disc DVD edition of the film, presenting a far sharper, and more natural looking image. The leap in quality between those two, for me at least, was enormous, one of the more substantial improvements I had come across between DVD editions at the time.
The jump in quality from Criterion’s DVD edition to this new Blu-ray isn’t as big as that previous leap, but this edition offers improvements in the areas one would expect Blu-ray to do so. The image is indeed, first off, quite a bit sharper, presenting more fine object detail, most notable in Belmondo’s jacket and the film grain, which looks natural. Contrast and gray levels look to be improved upon and also come off a bit more distinct.
Similar to the original DVD the source materials show only a few minor flaws (a mark here, a slight scratch there) and the image is in beautiful shape as a whole. Also throw in the fact there are no detectable artifacts the image comes off looking clean, natural, and the most film-like I’ve seen it on home video. Overall it’s a beautiful job by Criterion and it looks fantastic in high-definition.
The age and shooting/editing style of the film ultimately hampers the lossless French mono track that accompanies the film and all of the same issues found on Criterion’s previous DVD are still here. Because audio was recorded over the film in post-production, dialogue can sound unnatural, tinny and flat, as well as out of place. The jazzy score sounds okay, but is again low, weak, and also distorted when it reaches for higher, louder notes.
I can’t say I noticed a discernable difference in comparison to Criterion’s DVD edition (though can say for a fact it still sounds light years better than Fox Lorber’s original DVD) but I feel this is as good as it’s ever going to sound.
Previously released on DVD by Criterion in a beautiful 2-disc DVD set, it appears that everything has been ported over from that edition to this Blu-ray, including the packaging. As far as I can see nothing is missing in the way of supplements.
First are a collection of archival interviews recorded around the time of the film’s release (or a couple 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 onto 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 afterwards. 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, as well as offering 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 were able to shoot at night, and a lot of other technical tidbits, most of which is 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 great first-hand accounts about the production, which actually sounded like a blast to be a part of.
The next interview is with, surprisingly, director D.A. Pennebaker. He, of course, has nothing to do directly with Breathless but he recounts working with Godard on the film One P.M. and despite not really 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 main purpose of this segment, though, is for Pennebaker to flesh out the more documentary style elements to Breathless, building off of a statement Godard made where he said Breathless was “a documentary about Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg.” From this he points out the more “documentary” elements in the style of filmmaking, which are more common today, granted, but unheard of at the time. The segment runs about 10-minutes.
Next up are a couple of video essays, first one being a 19-minute piece by Mark Rappaport on Jean Seberg. Mixed with clips, photos, interviews, and Rappaport’s narration, the essay quickly goes over Seberg’s career, from her discovery by Preminger, to becoming a pop culture icon after Breathless, to her later career in film (which includes Paint Your Wagon and Airport) and then her unfortunate suicide. The piece features bits presented elsewhere on the disc but it’s a very comprehensive and informative supplement.
Breathless as Criticism is an 11-minute essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum. This quick little bit is similar to features found on some of the other Criterion discs for Godard films, with Rosenbaum pointing out some of the cultural and film 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, which works like a sort of primer on Godard’s style.
Next up is the biggest supplement, the 88-minute documentary Chambre 12, hotel de suede, made in 1993 by French television personality Claude Ventura. In it Ventura revisits the locations of the production, starting with the hotel room used in the film, noting that the hotel is to 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 even Seberg’s widower, along with other members of the crew. Through these interviews and various production notes and documentation he was able to 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,” says au revoir and then hangs up. While the interviews are great, and as wonderful as the documentation is that he digs up, including the actual case that inspired the film, it can be a bit of a long-winded segment that could benefit from some editing. Still a nice inclusion and easily the most informative video piece I’ve ever come across about the film.
And then finally 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 just 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 of course testing out the medium, some elements of which he would reuse to an extent in Breathless, the most obvious being the entire conversation occurring in a small room, similar to the extended scene that takes place in the hotel room between Belmondo and Seberg. It’s actually a very fun film, and a great look at some of Godard’s first work.
The disc supplements then conclude with a theatrical trailer for the film.
And finally the set closes with an 80-page booklet that looks to be exactly the same as the one found accompanying the DVD edition. Inside you first get an incredibly extensive essay by Dudley Andrew on the impact Breathless had on the film world, and also covers some of Godard’s other work. It also includes four reprinted interviews with Godard, who talks about the film (his opinion of it seeming 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” to the film is in Truffaut’s, but the finished product still greatly differs from it. Another excellent booklet from Criterion.
It’s a loaded edition, covering every aspect of the film incredibly well, from the actual production to a more analytical slant. The original Fox Lorber DVD had a commentary, but I recall it being fairly bland so it missing here isn’t something to be too concerned about, plus all of the other supplements cover the film extraordinarily well. In the end a well-balanced and informative set of supplements.
Criterion’s original DVD was fantastic, and everything has been ported over to this new Blu-ray edition. And as for the transfer it’s the best I’ve seen the film on home video so far. A top-notch release and one that comes highly recommended, even to those who already own the two-disc Criteiron DVD set.