A girl, a gun, a clas­sic

Pasatiempo - - The Big Picture - Jonathan Richards For The New Mex­i­can

IBreath­less, gang­ster flick, not rated, in French with sub­ti­tles, The Screen, 3.5 chiles A clas­sic proves it­self by the way it fits into any moment in time with ease. It shrugs off trend and fashion and thumbs its nose at ex­pi­ra­tion dates. Like the qual­ity of mercy, it is never strained. If a thing re­quires an ex­pla­na­tion, it may be some­thing won­der­ful, but it is not, in the sense we’re us­ing for to­day’s les­son, a clas­sic.

Shake­speare has no bound­aries — Mer­cu­tio, Ham­let, and Prince Hal make their own wel­come. Twain and Fitzger­ald wrote for the moment and for the ages. Ro­stand’s hero, Cyrano, has panache that never needs an in­tro­duc­tion. Austen is a hot­ter prop­erty to­day than she was in her prime two cen­turies ago.

When it comes to the movies, a lot of oldies stand up, but many more are as faded as a tin of Old Dutch Cleanser left in the kitchen win­dow of an aban­doned sum­mer cot­tage or a rose packed away be­tween the pages of a book. The Rudys, Valentino and Vallee, wilt in the beam of a mod­ern pro­jec­tor bulb, but Er­rol Flynn still buck­les a swash with gusto. Bette Davis can tell us to fas­ten our seat belts, it’s go­ing to be a bumpy night, when­ever she likes. Bog­art never goes out of style.

And when in Jean-Luc Go­dard’s Breath­less, Jean-Paul Bel­mondo lingers in front of a Paris movie theater to ad­mire Bo­gey’s im­age on a poster for The Mal­tese Fal­con and passes his thumb over his lip, it’s a Promethean moment, a pass­ing of the torch that some­how, against all prob­a­bil­ity, works. Bel­mondo was cool, is cool, and al­ways will be cool. And Jean Se­berg, whose short, un­happy life ended in an ap­par­ent sui­cide in 1979, is ev­ery bit his match with her gamin hair­cut and Mona Lisa smile.

Breath­less turned 50 this spring. It was re­leased the year af­ter François Truffaut’s maiden fea­ture, The 400 Blows, tri­umphed at Cannes in 1959. Truffaut’s film is of­ten cred­ited as the open­ing salvo of the French New Wave (tech­ni­cally, Claude Chabrol beat them all to the punch, but Le Beau Serge didn’t get the in­ter­na­tional ac­claim). But for many crit­ics, Breath­less is the one. “Mod­ern movies be­gin here,” Roger Ebert wrote. “No de­but film since Cit­i­zen Kane in 1942 has been as in­flu­en­tial.”

Breath­less changed the way we look at movies and the way we make movies. Go­dard took his cam­era into the streets and shot on the fly in much the way young film­mak­ers do to­day, in this age of dig­i­tal video and ev­ery­man cin­ema. Only then, no­body else was do­ing it. Scenes like the one in which Se­berg saun­ters down the Champs-Élysées sell­ing the Paris Her­ald Tribune were shot just like that, out in the real world, with real passersby. And in the edit­ing room, Go­dard threw the rules out the win­dow, scan­dal­iz­ing the old guard and up­set­ting main­stream crit­ics like The New York Times’ ven­er­a­ble Bosley Crowther, who groused that “sor­did is re­ally a mild word for its pile-up of gross in­de­cen­cies” and warned that the film “pro­gresses in a style that might be de­scribed as ‘ pic­to­rial ca­coph­ony.’”

Those fa­mous jump-cuts! They have been an­a­lyzed and dis­sected end­lessly by film philoso­phers, eu­lo­gized by crit­ics, and sniped at by ri­vals. Claude Au­tant-Lara, a di­rec­tor of the gen­er­a­tion shoul­dered aside by the New Wave, claimed to know the real story: “A mi­nor pro­ducer had hired a mi­nor di­rec­tor to make a mi­nor crime movie run­ning a max­i­mum of 5,000 me­ters. But the di­rec­tor filmed 8,000 me­ters; the pro­ducer told him to cut it down, but the di­rec­tor re­fused. Then he was forced to do so. So in an act of bravado, he made the cuts him­self any which way, at ran­dom, in or­der to make the film un­mar­ketable.”

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