Although French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard was never as popular with U.S. arthouse audiences as his peer Francois Truffaut, Godard’s stunning 1959 debut film, “Breathless (A Bout de Souffle),” probably had a greater impact on American filmmakers than any of the Truffaut hits.
“Breathless” blew the minds of directors in this country in 1960 when the film started opening in specialty theaters here. At the time, American directors were forced to work on overlit Hollywood sets, with over made-up actors, on stories that didn’t seem to apply to much of what was going on in the “real” world.
Godard had very little money to make his fast little gangster film, so he had to shoot on the streets of Paris and in real cafes and cramped hotel rooms.
Instead of camera tracks or cranes, Godard had cinematographer Raoul Coutard pushed in a wheelchair — with a hand-held camera — for the many scenes in “Breathless” where we follow gangster Jean-Paul Belmondo and his American girlfriend Jean Seberg through the streets and into hotel lobbies and cafes.
Godard was determined to keep things moving quickly — and to hold the running time down to 90 minutes — so he used “jump cuts” throughout “Breathless” (those jagged cuts within the same shot that soon became common practice).
Two Esquire writers, David Newman and Robert Benton, were so impressed by “Breathless” that they went to work on a script about the Texas outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow that they envisioned as an American Godard-style film. (For the full behind-the-scenes story read Mark Harris’ brilliant “Pictures at a Revolution”).
The writers offered the movie to Godard, but in his characteristic style he wanted to do it fast and cheap in New Jersey in black-and-white, but Benton and Newman insisted it be shot on real Texas locations in color.
Arthur Penn was already enraptured by Godard (and Truffaut) when producer Warren Beatty offered him the chance to direct “Bonnie & Clyde” and the final result in 1967 mixed influences of both French directors (the hard-edged, comic violence from Godard, the lyrical, nostalgic aspects from Truffaut).
Unlike many “classics” the Godard landmark movie has always been sheer fun to watch, but for many years it was difficult to see the film in a good print in this country (my first time experiencing the movie, at a revival house in Philadelphia, it was hard to tell the jump cuts from the awful choppiness of a very old print).
Fortunately, a major restoration was done in 2009 and a new print debuted at New York’s Film Forum in 2010 this year to an ecstatic response.
It will be my pleasure to introduce a screening of that new print Wednesday night at 6:30 at the beautiful Bijou Theatre in downtown Bridgeport.
Yes, you can Netflix a copy of this version or buy the Criterion DVD, but there is no substitute for seeing the sexy and thrilling classic on a big screen.