From The New Yorker, by Richard Brody:
I’ve seen the fiftieth-anniversary restoration of Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless” that opens at Film Forum this Friday, and it’s revelatory; the images, restored under the supervision of the film’s cinematographer, Raoul Coutard, yield up details hitherto imperceptible in the prints that were available until now, as if layers of varnish had come off to show Coutard’s own brushwork. Keeping a close eye on the timings—the brightness of each scene, each shot—he elicits a dark, contrasty, charcoal-like palette that seems to reflect the now-familiar stories of Godard’s unusual methods (they used hardly any movie lighting, even indoors; shot on the street at night with high-speed still-camera film; filmed in direct sunlight; worked mainly with a hand-held camera of the sort more often used for newsreels). The soundtrack, too, is happily crisp and clear, and, for non-Francophones, the subtitles have also been redone and made much fuller than on earlier prints. I’ve seen the film countless times but am grateful to have seen it again in this restoration; I’m not able to compare it side-by-side with other prints, but this one provided a welcome jolt of the new (though the experience will be even better, I suspect, when the new print shows a little wear, if not tear).
It’s a jolt that I experienced first-hand, thirty-five years ago, when a fellow college freshman, the pipe-smoking, tweed-wearing, and bearded proto-philosopher Justin Schwartz (whose program notes for a Princeton Film Society film-noir program remain, to this day, among the most perceptive and poetic things I’ve ever read on the subject) recommended, one Friday at the dining hall known as Commons, that I go see a screening of “Breathless” that night. I did so, in the company of other friends—let me out them here: Andrew Mendelsohn, Liza Schlafly, and Nabers Cabaniss—who had the doubtless strange and science-fictiony experience of finding the person who emerged from the screening to be radically different, as if at the molecular level, from the one they went in with. I found the rhythmic, intellectual, and emotional freedom of it to be incomparably exciting, liberating, and inspiring, and I knew at once that whatever I did for the rest of my life would have something to do with movies.
I knew nothing about the art of the movies, which, for me, until then, were mere Saturday-night entertainments, so I had no idea that Godard was breaking any of the formal conventions of filmmaking. But I sensed that he controlled the tempi and rhythms of the movie as if he were a jazzman, and filmed with the spontaneity of a jazzman, and I knew that the world he depicted—and the way he depicted it—was infused with an overtly intellectual energy that resembled the way I lived with my friends. His characters were playfully sexy and funny in bed; they were fascinated with violence and with death; they shifted registers and moods with an impulsivity that resembled our own; they embodied the conflicts that we all faced, between playing life by the rules and breaking them at high risk, in a way that seemed true to our own experience because they were unfiltered by Hollywood gloss and free of the connect-the-dots consistency of professional screenwriting—because they really seemed young. The movie was full of talk about books and movies and music and art, and, though the characters did the talking, their effect on me was of a primal auteurism: I heard Godard himself speaking through them, and providing a virtual image of himself thinking aloud in real time. Above all, “Breathless” seemed to me to be first-person filmmaking, the work of a person making a film the way musicians make music or novelists and philosophers write—it seemed to me to be a movie made by the kind of swift and streetwise young intellectual I and many of the people I knew best aspired to be.
It was a big surprise to me to learn, soon thereafter—from the book “Godard on Godard,” featuring his critical writings and interviews with him from 1950 through 1967—that Godard derived a large measure of his inspiration from Hollywood movies (of course, there are overt references to Hollywood movies in “Breathless” itself, but, since I didn’t actually get them, I latched onto other quotes and allusions). In the same book, I read the 1962 interview in which Godard said,
Although I felt ashamed of it at one time, I do like [“Breathless”] very much, but now I see where it belongs—along with “Alice in Wonderland.” I thought it was “Scarface.”
Godard thought he was making a movie in the Hollywood gangster-film and film-noir tradition, and came to understand, a few years later, that he was making an utter fantasy. When I saw “Breathless” in the absence of any fund of gangster and noir knowledge of my own, I had no doubt that it was a fantasy—though it was a fantasy that, with its witty views of Paris, was deeply rooted in the impulse to document the life he knew. (The scenes where the streetlights come on at dusk and where Jean Seberg flits from dot to dot in a crosswalk struck me immediately as an exemplary and poetic way of filming a city.) This, too, is a kind of romanticism—but one I understood first-hand, the adolescent romanticism of the first time, as all new knowledge, and even ordinary street views, seemed sufficiently wondrous and surprising to give rise to metaphysical and subjective delight. (We were all influenced by the Surrealists without knowing it; Godard knew it.)
There was, of course, plenty of Hollywood-style romanticism in the film, culled from a canon of Godard’s own, one he largely shared with his fellow former critics at Cahiers du Cinéma, that included several films by Nicholas Ray (such as “They Live by Night” and “Johnny Guitar”) and several by Otto Preminger (such as “Fallen Angel” and “Where the Sidewalk Ends”), but his relationship to Hollywood, despite all appearances, quickly turned ambivalent. Where he sought to infuse its forms with a different intellectual substance, he soon found himself in conflict with the forms. The 1960-61 musical-comedy takeoff “A Woman Is a Woman” alluded to the genre’s elements without actually deriving much substance from its styles—Godard’s freestyle inventiveness there suggested no parody but, rather, an act of pure modernism. Many of his best films of the sixties, such as “Vivre sa Vie,” “A Married Woman,” and “Masculine Feminine” owed little to the classic Hollywood that he loved, and, increasingly, for political reasons, resented. “Pierrot le Fou,” from 1965, openly dramatized the tension between the Hollywood heritage and personal expression as a deadly and self-destructive conflict.
In short, “Breathless” showed the world, and its succeeding generations of filmmakers, the formula for taking a Hollywood genre and adapting it to the filmmaker’s own personal and intellectual ends—and then swallowed it. (Twenty years later, beginning with “Every Man for Himself,” Godard suggested an utterly new way of confronting and making use of the cinematic heritage without aping it.) “Breathless” was a model for what could be done—and for what, having been done, needn’t be done again. And this spirit of perpetual artistic revolution, along with the boundless curiosity, energy, and audacity that it takes, is the film’s most enduring and inspiring aspect.