A girl, a gun, a classic
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.”