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David Lamble

Post date:
07/17/10- 00:00:00 AM
San Francisco Bay Area


“After all, I’m an asshole.”

A sentence that signals a revolution: for those who believe the spirit of the sixties isn’t conjured until Jack Kennedy is shot in Dallas, Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (or Out of Breath) puts a rakish, brazenly insolent French petty hoodlum on a crime spree that in a breezy ninety minutes overthrows every stuffy rule holding back the new cinema: to paraphrase a contemporary critic: “where pretentious youth overthrow an even more pretentious establishment.”

We know nothing about this young thug – Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo, who at twenty-seven has made virtually no impression in his first nine pictures) – apart from his cheeky grin, the cigarette dangling from his lower lip and his ability to hot wire American cars. In a brisk ten minutes Michel steals a car, kills a cop and propositions his girl (or is she?) on the Champs-Elysees. That girl – Patricia Franchini (the corn bred All-American Jean Seberg, fresh off two critically lambasted films for her cinema daddy Otto Preminger) is wearing a flesh tight T-shirt with the logo of her employer “New York Herald Tribune” girdling her chest – Michel rudely quips, “Why don’t you wear a bra?”

Famous for breaking all the rules of filmmaking at that precious moment: August/September 1959 – with his furious jump cuts and handheld camera – Godard actually took more calculated risks with extremely long takes and for a crime flick an audacious mid film chapter where Belmond and Seberg hop in and out of bed philosophizing about the future of their relationship: whether she would jump into his latest stolen car and flee to Italy or whether she’d rather sleep her way up the ranks of Paris freelance journalism. A droll episode has Patricia tossing brilliantly pretentious questions at a heavyweight male novelist who flirts back employing every hoary cliché of the language of love.

Fifty years later the attitudes may seem absurdly precious but the images endure: Belmondo staring up at a cinema poster of Bogey in his last feature (The Harder They Fall) rubbing his thumb across his lips in a symbolic kiss to the freshly dead icon whose image he would appropriate for the next couple of decades; Belmondo and Seberg smoking up a storm – at one point she literally disappears into a cloud of cigarette smoke – as they flirt with a future she’s already preparing to betray.

With its beautifully restored images reminding us what it was like to be alive at the dawn of the French New Wave, Breathless is a rush, both an unimaginably romantic peek at hetero love on the run and a fantastic document of life in the early days of the Fifth Republic – at one point Godard’s camera flirts along the edge of a huge Parisian parade in honor of the American and French presidents – then he madly follows our couple on the lam as they flee the cops: one funny moment has Seberg escaping a police tail by ducking into a cinema ladies room stall.

As always the debate continues about Michel’s famous dying words: does he call her a “bitch,” a “scumbag” or is this merely one final gratuitous curse by a prankish boy at his cruel if preordained fate. Breathless is a lovely reminder of a more innocent time when the term pretentious youth could still be a badge of honor.