Fifty Years Later, Still Breathless

By

Published May 28, 2010

Amid the chaos of a press conference outside of Orly Airport, the novelist Parvulesco, played by Jean-Pierre Melville, coolly entertains a series of questions. Asked by a young American journalist, Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg), “What is your greatest ambition?” his answer, “To become immortal. And then… die,” is both cagey and insouciant. The sublime portrait of a puzzled Patricia is hatched. 50 years later, this exchange and so many others in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, which begins a two-week run at New York’s Film Forum today, leave an indelible mark.

To mark its 50th anniversary, Godard’s pioneering first feature has been newly restored with revised subtitles. Unlike other cinematic benchmarks that have wowed today’s audiences with the wonders of film preservation, Breathless‘s return to theaters is not defined by the rescue and salvation of its original form. The film’s simple story—small time criminal Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is on the lam in Paris, hiding in the company of his girlfriend, Patricia—is enduringly frenetic. Belmondo’s involving charisma, freewheeling lilt, and Bogart persuasions are an homage to American gangster movies but remain recreational in their tempo. This merry hubris is captured near the start of the film, when a pair of policemen chase after him on foot. Having casually entered the Métro reading his paper, Michel emerges from an entrance across the street, as both cops tear down after him. Not once does Michel lift his eyes from the paper; not once is his step hurried.

Reversely, in a scene in which a slackened tête-à-tête between lovers slows the film’s pace, Patricia and Michel amble on about love, art, and literature. In her tiny room, this existential performance seldom moves from the wrestled sheets of Patricia’s bed, and then it is only to go to the bathroom, where the two make faces in the mirror. Retreating from the film’s restless, reportage bent–largely egged on by Martial Solal’s rousing jazz score—this particular scene reveals a quieter but stronger kind of discordance.

Breathless is playing May 28 through June 10 at Film Forum, located at 209 West Houston Street in New York.