Criterion Review: Jean-Luc Goddard’s BREATHLESS [4K-UHD]

The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.

À BOUT DE SOUFFLE is indisputable in its impact and influence on cinema

In the 60s, French filmmakers shook up the craft with ‘nouvelle vague’. A new wave of talent showcasing a distinct filmmaking aesthetic and style that has imprinted not just on future filmmakers, but pop culture itself. Think Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim, and yes, Jean-Luc Goddard’s Breathless as quintessential examples. Goddard’s film sees Crime thriller meet misguided romance, where the plot is largely in service of the simmering relationship at the film’s core, and realizing the director’s own vision.

A failed car heist leads to Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) gunning down a policeman as he makes his escape. Seeking refuge in Paris, he finds his way to the hotel room of his ex-lover Patricia (Jean Seberg). An American student studying at the Sorbonne, she unknowingly becomes his accomplice, as he hides out, tries to rekindle their affair, and work on his plans to escape to Italy. Eventually, the truth of Michel’s circumstance come out, leading Patricia to make a choice about both of their futures.

A simple premise, but one that opens up the potential for this young pair to play off of each other, the looming threat of capture and consequence percolating in the background. Belmondo crafts a brooding anti-hero type who blurs the lines between swagger and sincerity. The allure of Seberg is undeniable, moreso as she tempers the seductive charms with a shrewdness. The steamy physicality is met with a cerebral sparring. Contemplative dialogue and philosophical ruminations in verbose scenes showcasing the kind of chatter that so inspired filmmakers like Scorsese, de Palma, and Tarantino. The dialogue has an off the cuff feel, something apparently stemming from the last minute handing of dialogue from Goddard to his stars leaving little time for rehearsal. The spontaneity, rhythm and flow of their exchanges is truly compelling. Handheld cameras add immersion and punctuate moments of drama and violence. Jump cuts are used to add weight to some of the characters choices and their consequences. Monochrome imagery, beautifully rendered by cinematographer Raoul Coutard, reflect some of the thriller/noir inspirations behind the film, a contrast to the rebellious, punk vibes the director manages to infuse into proceedings. Goddard gives the film an edge, which along with the allure of the leads builds into a film with a beguiling rhythm. Breathless is a truly seminal work that still leaves an indelible mark on the viewer.

The Package

The 4K transfer here is another UHD stunner from Criterion. Monochrome is showcased wonderfully, with a superb range of greys, solid blacks and crisp whites. A dense, detailed, and very fluid image from start to finish. Criterion’s package includes one disc showcasing the 4K-UHD treatment of the film, and a second Blu-ray hosting the film and extra features:

  • Interviews with director Jean-Luc Godard; actors Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg, and Jean-Pierre Melville; director of photography Raoul Coutard; assistant director Pierre Rissient; and filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker: These four interviews are compiled together and nicely cover a range of topics related to the film. From production to release, personal stories, and tales of conflict on set, notably between Seberg and Preminger
  • Two video essays: filmmaker Mark Rappaport’s Jean Seberg and critic Jonathan Rosenbaum’s “Breathless” as Criticism: 19 and 12 minutes respectively, these are refined and insightful pieces. Rappaport’s piece is notably interesting as he draws from his own 1995 film, From the Journals of Jean Seberg, to discuss her works
  • Chambre 12, Hôtel de Suède, a 1993 French documentary about the making of Breathless, featuring members of the cast and crew: Substantial in content and time, running around 79 minutes. This documentary, hosted by French director Claude Venture, collects a series of interviews with various talents involved with the film, both those in front of and behind the camera. Nuanced, considered, and illuminating pieces
  • Charlotte et son Jules, a 1959 short film by Godard featuring Belmondo: 12 minutes in length, and while dated, it’s still very amusing
  • Trailer:
  • PLUS: An essay by scholar Dudley Andrew, writings by Godard, François Truffaut’s original treatment, and Godard’s scenario: In the liner booklet
  • Cover by Rodrigo Corral

The Bottom Line

Goddard’s Breathless is indisputable in its impact and subsequent influence on cinema. Even now, decades later, it still feels like a breath of fresh air. Criterion’s 4K-transfer is resplendent, and the accompanying extra features help deepen appreciation for this landmark work.

Jean-Luc Goddard’s Breathless is available on 4K-UHD via Criterion now

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