Tuesday, May 25, 2010

BREATHLESS at 50: Restored print of the Godard classic opens at Film Forum

OK.  TrustMovies has got to say it. He just doesn't "get" Godard. In fact, he thinks the guy is probably the most over-rated movie-maker of our time. 

Whoosh!  That's the sound of half an audience disappearing all at once.   (Or maybe not.  For whatever reason this blog attracts younger readers, too, and I wonder what they will make of this much-heralded revival.  They at least may not bring to the viewing of it quite the obeisance of the older set.)  I do get that the guy was ground-breaking in his day.  Godard, below, has long been good at creating, perhaps straddling, the cutting edge:  Witness Weekend, even if the movie eventually feels like a nail in the noodle, and Le Petit Soldat remains, I think, my favorite of his work.

Yet I was actually looking forward to seeing BREATHLESS again after nearly half a century (I hadn't been much taken with it first-time-around).  And still, it severely disappoints.  What seemed "hip" then now curdles. Belmondo's attitude approaches the smarmy and reflects, I believe, Godard's casual misogynism.  Though new at the time, the idea of characters that break from "real life" to look at and speak into the camera has, in the interim, been done to death.  More important, what the Belmondo character (I use that word loosely, as he is but a bundle of cutesy, sexy tics: the director's wish-fulfillment) has to say is nothing major: mostly cheap-jack philosophizing, again a mouthpiece for the movie-maker. When, between the sheets, after knowing nothing about any authors our heroine has brought up to him, Michel suddenly refers to Franco-American rapprochement.  As though this two-bit hood would understand the meaning of that phrase, let alone be able to use it cleverly. Again, the director can't resist an opportunity.

Speaking of the irresistible: Godard cannot resist constant referencing, as well.  While I picked up a number of these, the film's press kit contains four full pages of listed reference -- to cinema, literature, art, fashion and more.  This sort of thing has always appealed to the cognoscenti -- "Aren't we in the know! -- and our own Quentin Tarantino has clearly taken it to heart.

Though the movie's pace in its day seemed jazzy, near-frenetic, seen now, it makes for some longueurs.  The saving graces are its cinematography (by the great Raul Coutard) and its stars: Jean-Paul Belmondo, whose smug, mug face burst across the screen like nothing we'd ever seen (they had in France; he'd made a number of films prior to this one).  His body, too -- he's topless for much of the movie -- is near-perfect, in itself a work of art. His co-star, Jean Seberg, has a face to die for -- open, sweet, welcoming --  even if Godard's consigning her to dizzy femme fatale smacks further of misogynism. Yet you can't fault the performers; they're as real as the movie permits. But that finale, which flirted with sentimentality fifty years ago, now appears downright mushy. 

Breathless was a slap in the kisser to what the surfers on the New Wave thought of "conventional" French cinema.  And for that it deserves regard. Godard, like Andy Warhol, would excel at nouvelle.  These "artists" -- provocateurs, more like -- forced us to look at things differently.  Bravo. But this is not the same thing as creating an actual work of art.

As for the new print of Breathless, it looks good, all right -- except for one thing. If you don't understand French, prepare to be hugely annoyed. Why on earth would anyone take such trouble to restore a film, including having new subtitles commissioned (from Rialto regular Lenny Borger) and then leave them in the same old-time style of crappy, often unreadable bleached-white? These "new" subtitles look just as subtitles did in the days before anyone thought to make them yellow, or border their white with an outline of black so that the words could easily be read against, say, white sheets -- around, in and between which this movie spends a good deal of time.  Whatever the reason, we who must read are left floundering. The saving grace, of course, is that the dialog isn't that great to begin with.

Breathless, which, if you haven't seen it, you probably should (you want to join us cognoscenti, right?), and if you have, you'll probably feel you must revisit, arrives via the restoration royalty at Rialto Pictures -- Bruce Goldstein and Adrienne Halpern -- and opens at Film Forum on Friday, May 28, for a two-week run.  Further appearances -- cities, dates and links to theaters -- can be found here.

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