Saturday, September 24, 2011

Peeping Tom (1960) - #58

You're so at home with that camera, you make me feel at home too. You have it in you, boy.

It's been a long time since I reviewed a Michael Powell film for this blog - twenty months, to be more specific. The Tales of Hoffmann, produced, written and directed in 1951 by Powell in collaboration with fellow "Archer" Emeric Pressburger, was the most recent entry here, from December 2009, the year I started this series and a year that included a lot of amazing Powell & Pressburger movies, starting with 49th Parallel from 1941, along with classics like The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Black Narcissus, A Canterbury Tale and several others, all of which I enjoyed when their turn arrived in the early days of this project. So when Peeping Tom came up in my queue, I was quite happy to reconnect with this master filmmaker, even though I had a vague understanding that the poor reception it initially received by British film critics, and subsequently the broader public, signaled a sharp downward spiral in Powell's career that he never quite recovered from. Powell, who had broken off his partnership with Pressburger just a few years prior to this film, collaborated instead with screenwriter Leo Marks, who supplied the story that Powell helped to visualize in his unique style. Though I won't take the time to say much about him here, Marks is a very interesting fellow whose remarkable life experiences are highlighted in the documentary supplement on the now out-of-print Criterion DVD (part of last year's Studio Canal purge that eventually did lead to Peeping Tom's 2010 release as a Region 2-locked Blu-ray.)

Given my own eagerness to see more of Powell's wonderful visual ingenuity and unconventional approach to story-telling, from nearly a decade later than the most recent film of his I'd seen, I couldn't help but wonder just what it was about Peeping Tom that compelled the harsh reactions of its detractors. The negative reviews are famously derisive, with one memorable line stating that "the only really satisfactory way to dispose of Peeping Tom would be to shovel it up and flush it swiftly down the nearest sewer. Even then the stench would remain." This article from the Encyclopedia of Fantastic Film and Television offers more zinger quotes and fascinating background on the controversy surrounding Peeping Tom upon initial release. Over the years since, it's been rediscovered and championed to the point that it's now a widely admired and highly influential classic in the psychological thriller genre, maybe even the first "slasher flick," for what that claim is worth...

Now I know that times and tastes change (oh, if that reviewer could only have imagined where cinema has taken us over these past 50 years!), and clearly from what I knew going in and eventually saw for myself, Peeping Tom is not a film destined for universal enjoyment and admiration. It's a disturbing tale of a twisted serial killer, one intended to unsettle its viewers. But the skill and intelligence behind the film surely merit more consideration and engaged discernment than such a blunt summary dismissal, don't they? And doesn't Powell's indisputable track record entitle him to some degree of deference from the critical establishment? Clearly it seemed to me that something beyond the usual aggravation that leads critics to pan films they dislike was at work here, and that's what interested me, beyond the simple intrigue of seeing Powell's craftsmanship and the wry, much-discussed insights that Peeping Tom makes about the art of film making and its appeal to the voyeuristic tendencies of cinema's most ardent fans.

So I spent time over this past week watching - just... patiently... watching - and comparing Peeping Tom with two of its closest companion pieces, Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, released just a few months later in 1960, and Fritz Lang's M, the German masterpiece that really laid the groundwork for presenting sympathetic sickos on the silver screen. While both of these films had their share of detractors (such lurid preoccupation with murderous subject matter is bound to offend some, in any time and culture), neither had anywhere near the devastating impact on their creators' careers that Peeping Tom had on Powell's. What was it about Powell's presentation of Mark Lewis that rankled so much more deeply than Lang's treatment of Hans Beckert or Hitchcock's portrayal of Norman Bates?

We can quickly dismiss any notion that Mark's predatory behavior toward slutty blonde look-alikes of his step-mother is somehow more outrageous than Hans hunting down and killing vulnerable little girls or Bates' psychotic collapse into his "mother" persona that results in slasher outbursts at the Bates Motel. All the victims are undeserving of their fate, regardless of the tarnished innocence of some. I suppose a case could be made that Peeping Tom shows more relish regarding the use of its knife; even though the deadly blade makes appearances in all three films, the camera lingers more deliberately over the stiletto concealed in his tripod, poised directly at the throats of Moira Shearer and Anna Massey, than it does on Beckert's switchblade, handed back to him by his naive would-be victim, or the brutal butcher's knife that slashes so artfully in its brief appearances in Psycho. Yes, there is a degree of sadism to be found in Peeping Tom that the other two films can't quite rival. But I think the critics' disquiet went deeper than that.

Whereas M used the device of a serial killer on the loose among many other elements (e.g. police procedural, socio-political commentary on class tensions between professionals in the legal system and the criminal underworld, the divisive effect his crimes have on the local community, etc.) and Psycho is celebrated for its unprecedented plot twists, diversions and visual tricks, Peeping Tom is, much more than either film, spent almost entirely within the psychological realm of the obsessive oddball at its center. Though Mark Lewis has all the hallmarks of a classic villain - clearly sinister and thoroughly inappropriate urges that he acts on, seemingly untroubled by any pangs of conscience - he doesn't really fit that culprit role nearly as much as Beckert or Bates do, even with the respective "excuses" that each screenplay provides to explain their homicidal behavior.

Lewis is given a more charitable rationale than either of the other killers, as we see in grotesque detail the filmed abuse inflicted upon him as a boy in the guise of "psychological experiments" by his renowned father. As he explains to his friend over the course of two pivotal scenes, the cumulative effect of this deliberately provoked state of fear that he was repeatedly subjected to has warped his ability to feel emotions like most people do, and created in him an appetite, an erotic craving in fact, that can only be satisfied in a pursuit that inevitably leads to new heights of terror and depravity before it finally overwhelms and devours him in its culmination. Even more upsetting, especially in the context of a "respectable popular entertainment": the notion that murder and eventual suicide are crucial components of an artist's magnum opus. A bizarre and hideous thought, once one snaps back to reality after getting lost in Peeping Tom's seductive and often charming allures - the saturated EastmanColor tones, Powell's trademark control over the framing and composition of so many great shots, Archers stalwart Esmond Knight's turn as director of the film-within-the-film, Shearer's jazzy little dance number and the recollection it stirs of her role in The Red Shoes, even British pin-up legend Pamela Green in her eye-catching moments.


I suppose that all this talent, in the service of a story so forthrightly depraved, was just a bit too much for the British cultural watchdogs to stomach at the time, and who knows what kind of petty resentments they may have had toward Powell on a personal level for stepping so far and freely out of the bounds they expected him to observe?

But I think the final straw for them back then, and perversely what makes Peeping Tom of such enduring interesting to so many cinephiles since, is just how central a role the actual medium of film plays in the formation of this fiend. Even though the movie is vulnerable to criticism that its scenario is excessively theatrical and not all that convincing as a prototype for "real world crime," I think one has to keep in mind that most of Powell's films have that fantastic, slightly gothic element to them. His characters inhabit an enhanced reality, acting out their driving forces theatrically, and that's clearly a make-or-break point for some viewers who will find fault for the artificiality of the premise. Through Powell and his own lifelong dedication to the movies, Mark Lewis' diabolically cruel and pathetically impotent utilization of the cinematic arts adds a documentary twist that makes the killing of his victims that much more... well, this poster kind of sums it up!


Exploitative and tacky as it may be, the poster claims are persuasive if you let the  implications of Lewis's mania sink in, even as Peeping Tom now seems relatively tame and even somewhat shackled down by its lack of explicitness due to the prevailing limitations of its time. I think the absence of blood and gore works to its advantage as a film but makes its more provocative points a bit easier to miss without the reinforcement of overt violence. Even though I don't think anyone would disagree with my assessment that there are plenty of movies, older and newer than Peeping Tom, that outdo it in the scariness factor, this is a film that made a much bigger cultural impact than would have ever seemed likely after its early descent into obscurity. It's a shame that Powell never again benefited from the kind of support and artistic freedom that his creative gifts deserved.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Classe Tous Risques (1960) - #434

You can hide a kid... and a machine gun.

By the time a man reaches his late 30s or early 40s, it's safe to assume, regardless of whatever kind of ethical standards he ascribes to, that he has made a sufficient number of compromises and moral transgressions in his life to fully crash the reputational house of cards he's constructed to win the approval and admiration of everyone who expected better things of him. I don't think I'm guilty of projection here, nor am I harboring any particularly explosive secrets about my past. I just know how guys operate in responding to the gamut of temptations we face. Even the bad boys among us, those who flaunt their aggression, their promiscuity, their self-styled outlaw attitudes and behaviors, have chapters they'd rather not talk about and want to keep under wraps as much as possible. Merely for the sake of convenience, we'd like to pull a cloak of forgetfulness over past events and interactions now rendered nearly irrelevant due to the passage of time and the transience of relationships. The weight of our conscience and the potential loss of control over our life circumstances, should we be called to account for our trespasses, tends to pin us down as we seek out trustworthy defenses and foolproof alibis, should they ever become necessary.

I think that sense of cumulative midlife guilt is what draws mild-mannered, relatively safe and stable citizens like myself to appreciate a film like Classe tous risques, a 1960 French gangster film that, in its dramatization of that universal conflict between the compromises of our past and the resulting limitations they impose upon our  future, marked a new step forward in the genre. It builds on that sense of world-weariness that was first established in the venerable "old gangster" trio of Rififi, Touchez pas au grisbi and Bob le flambeur, moving the action out of the Pigalle district of Paris (to start with, anyway, though the action winds up pretty close to that neighborhood) and giving us a younger, more physically imposing focal point in ex-wrestler Lino Ventura. In its reminder that hardened crooks also have family lives and mundane head-of-household concerns like many of the rest of us, Classe tous risques also serves as a bridge to more contemporary humanized renditions of career criminals such as we see in The Sopranos.

Ventura, who made his film acting debut via a bit part in Touchez pas au grisbi, had by this point emerged as a compelling leading man. His brawny physique, chiseled facial features and commanding presence on screen served him well here, and over the course of a lengthy career. And by some combination of fortuitous luck and knowing instinct, he was paired up with a young Jean-Paul Belmondo, before Breathless had been released and vaulted him to an even greater level of international stardom. Like Breathless, Classe tous risque was also a debut film, in this instance for Claude Sautet, who doesn't have any other Criterion titles in his filmography beyond serving as a writer for Eyes Without A Face. And speaking of writers, this film shares a common denominator with Le Trou, my previous entry in this series, in that both were based on novels written by real-life ex-con Jose Giovanni, who contributes some valuable insights in the supplements on this DVD. Released very close together in 1960, they both flopped at first, before eventually reaching their wider audience and establishing themselves as classics. I think the Belmondo factor was instrumental in getting Class tous risques a well-deserved second look. In fact, the American trailer, clumsily billed here as The Big Risk, included on the DVD, gives the impression that this is primarily Belmondo's film, even though he plays a secondary supporting role, not even a co-star quite yet. A more accurate preview can be found here, in the French trailer:

 

And that late entry and "just enough" inclusion of Belmondo is a good thing, as too much focus on his Eric Stark character would have been an easy trap to fall into (or for studio bosses to impose on a young director) if his celebrity status had already been established. Jean-Paul does a fine job  injecting his youthful charisma into the scenes allotted to him, but the spotlight clearly demands and deserves to rest on Ventura's performance as Aldo Davos, a renowned criminal tough guy and gang boss whose exploits had put not only him but also his wife and two young sons on the run for the past ten years. As Class tous risques opens in Milan's central train station, a voice-over informs us that the family is en route back home to France, a dicey gamble made necessary by the unmistakable sense that the Italian police force is this close to swooping in on the wanted fugitive. To get out of town undetected and slip through the dragnet of immigration checkpoints likely to trip up their journey, Abel and his friend Raymond resort to a daring and desperate heist on the street, leading to a riveting opening sequence of hot pursuit and narrow escapes.

Punctuating the action are several scenes showing Abel's more sensitive side, as a father and husband who recognizes just how far out on the limb he's carried his family in pursuit of ill-gotten gain, yet without any safe way of backing up or lowering them to a more secure footing. These parts of the film showcase Ventura's indisputable acting skill and insight into the character of Davos, as he struggles to maintain the balance between manly strength and resilience expected of him while suppressing the growing sense of frustration and futility as he resorts to ever more desperate measures to meet his family's needs. The only direction open to him is forward into the path of risk and danger, even as he understands the constantly increasing difficulties he and, through no fault of their own, his loved ones are likely to face.

Just when it appears that Abel and his clandestine crew have made a safe transfer out of town (though not without a few victims along the way) and avoided capture, disaster strikes as they're intercepted by patrolling customs agents. A gunfight breaks out, killing two of his fellow travelers and leaving him with the burden of caring for his sons while also trying to evade the law. From this point forward, the net begins to tighten around Abel, though he is not without resources. He makes phone contact with some of his old shady pals in Paris, calling in past favors and expecting them to adhere to the underworld code of honor that compels them to come to the aid of one of their own in times of trouble.

But the times have changed, and so have the gangster ethos by which these hoods operate. They've all grown up somewhat, and there's too much for them to lose to dare take that chance to go across the border to fetch a wanted man who's already been sentenced to Death Row and has nothing left to lose. So they opt instead to recruit a fresh face, someone unknown to both Abel and the police and thereby less likely to draw notice at the border crossings and other roadblocks set up along the way. That's where Belmondo comes in, as the young but wily courier whose quick thinking and reckless nerve helps Abel and his sons get back to their native soil.

But despite the success of their plan, Abel still sees the failure of his friends to personally come to his aid as a betrayal. Of course he's right in that they weren't willing to take the chance themselves, and exposed him to an obvious double-cross if the driver they'd sent had turned out to be a fink or simply incapable of pulling off the job. Still, their decision is plausible, defensible, practical - in short, it's perfectly in keeping with the legitimacy and hypocrisy so characteristic of what passes for "adulthood" in the civilized world. From this point, where Abel confronts his supposed allies and partners in crime, the rest of Classe tous risques is a heart-rending process of seeing Abel stripped of all that matters to him the most - his sons, his freedom, his self-respect, until, in his own words, "there's nothing left." The film's conclusion, so abrupt, unsentimental and direct as to have a more life-like feel to it than usual for these kinds of stories, leaves us hanging in that we don't know exactly how Abel got that last stage of his journey. Nevertheless it tells us everything we need to know about the man and the hazards of the path he traveled on.

Eclipse Review: The League of Gentlemen

Next: Peeping Tom

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Le Trou (1960) - #129

Poor Gaspard.

As the nouvelle vague was breaking out in cinematheques around the world, one of its precursors and patron saints, French director Jacques Becker, was unknowingly wrapping up his career with what turned out to be his final film. Though not necessarily the kind of self-consciously elegiac monument to himself that Jean Cocteau assembled in Testament of Orpheus, Le Trou (literally, The Hole) seems to be a fitting send-off for Becker, though he was still young, not yet 54, and no one would have faulted him for presuming he had a few more films to go before his work was done.

Never one of France's higher profile directors in his lifetime, Becker nevertheless had the distinction of being admired as a powerful film maker by those whose taste and scrutiny looked beyond the conventions of respectability and catering to popular tastes. I only know him through his earlier Criterion films, Casque d'or and Touchez pas au grisbi, as well as his brief cameo in the early Jean Renoir satire Boudu Saved From Drowning, which he also worked on as a crew member. This DVD was the first Criterion release of a Becker film, a relic from the days when bare-bones releases were a lot more the norm than they are today, so don't come to this (now out-of-print) disc expecting anything extra by way of supplements. In a way, this lean presentation is also quite suitable to the film itself. In its stripped down, plain spoken but intensely penetrative portrayal of male solidarity and determination in the face of the law's indifference to their dismal fate, Le Trou confronts its audience with the truth of their complicity in a system that compels admittedly flawed men to use their noblest impulses in ways that virtually assure the destruction of themselves and those who refuse to play by its corrupted rules.

The basic premise of Le Trou is that imprisoned men, facing a long and hopeless stretch of confinement, will continually seek opportunities for escape, and occasionally act boldly and strategically to make it happen. The challenge of discovering and exploiting that escape route, while avoiding detection by the guards and the prison authorities above them, drives the suspense practically without hesitation over the course of two solid hours. Given what we know about prisons, the durability of their structure, the security measures taken to thwart jailbreaks (whether conspired or impulsive) and the dreadful ramifications of being caught in the act, the artist's challenge in such stories is to first lead us to invest in the characters themselves, and second, present a plan to get out that is both plausible and fascinating to observe. In both respects, Becker succeeds to such a degree that he effectively set the template for future variations on this theme.

What gets the film off to such a powerful start, happily sustained by both its cinematic methods and the natural demeanor of the nonprofessional actors at its center, is that we're immediately informed that this story is based on true events. "Non-actor" Jean Keraudy looks up from the car engine he's working on and turns to the camera, directly informing us that his film is his story of events that took place 13 years earlier. From there, we see a view of Paris and pan down into the imposing fortress of a large urban prison, where we're soon introduced to a group of men, including Keraudy among them, who set out on a risky quest for freedom from their cramped quarters. After we've watched it all unfold, and come to learn that an unusual degree of fidelity to that history was exercised in its making, we're even more impressed. The Santé prison in Paris, where the original escape took place, was the actual set for many of the scenes, and those that were shot in the studio were done on a soundstage that serves as a faithful replica of the prison cell and corridor where most of the action takes place. 

But the verisimilitude goes well beyond the look and feel of Le Trou's atmospherics. What makes this film admirable and especially refreshing by the standards of most popular films today is just how low-tech and visceral an approach is taken to the material. Much of what makes Le Trou such a compelling watch is established through long wordless takes of muscles and crude implements crashing through thick barriers of concrete and stone, or bare fingers working a raw hacksaw blade through iron bars and steel locks. There are enough close calls and tense moments to satisfy just about anyone's appetite for "how will they get out of this?" nail-biters, but it's the gritty persistence, and the meticulous sound design of clanging metal and bouncing gravel in real time that stands out most strongly in retrospect. Becker's patience to capture this hard labor in all its nerve-wracking tedium, and his confidence in knowing that this idiosyncratic reduction of the usual cinematic "action" would still fixate our attention, is masterful.


Rather than win our affections with an array of character archetypes calculated to give most in the audience "someone to relate to," the men of Le Trou are, with one exception, not invested with any kind of a backstory to explain their imprisonment or what they hope to accomplish if their escape plans succeed. They're representatives of working class men who stoically play the hand that life's dealt them, hewing to a code of honor more instinctively felt than clearly articulated among their peers, despite whatever criminality got them into their current predicament. Each have their own personalities and role within the scheme, but the four thoroughly bonded inmates - Geo, Roland, Manu and Monseigneur - are first and foremost distinguished by their toughness, their resiliency and their unspoken commitment of solidarity with one another... even if they each plan to go their separate ways the moment they step unfettered into the open air.

That fifth inmate, Gaspard, is the peculiar wrinkle in Le Trou's plot, the guy who doesn't quite belong but gets pulled in anyway. He's obviously set apart from the rest both by his looks and his demeanor toward his fellow captives and their captors alike. We first see him after he's been busted for possession of a contraband lighter, which he tries to excuse by saying he'd forgotten it was in his pocket, it had no fuel, he kept it for sentimental reasons, and so on. It's a line of pleading and currying of favor that his eventual cellmates would never think of using if faced with a similar interrogation. Even though his banter manages to get Gaspard off the hook with the warden, it sets him up as "sympathetique" - a nice guy - a trait that will lead to future exploitation. Lacking the tough, grizzled defenses that build up over the course of a life filled with hard knocks, Gaspard is a man both privileged and to be pitied. The film's conclusion, about which I won't say much in detail, simply left me wondering if the hole referred to in the title wasn't so much the one they carved out of the floor in their jail cell as it is the emptiness that lurks behind Gaspard's need to be liked and the ease with which he allows himself to be emptied out and filled by others, without knowing himself what he really wants or needs.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Breathless (1960) - #408

Grief is a compromise. I want all or nothing.

As a child of the 1960s and a teenager in the 1970s, the first I ever heard of anything referred to as "the New Wave" had everything to do with music and nothing to do with the movies. After getting turned on to the seductions of arena rock bands in 1975, when Kiss Alive! became the first record album I ever bought with my own money, within a couple years I became aware of an angrier, more forceful musical style that appealed to my surly mindset at the time - punk rock, just emerging over in England through bands like the Sex Pistols, the Clash and the Damned. The USA had its own emerging punk scene, and I recall quite vividly, after already having purchased my first two Ramones albums (their self-titled debut and Leave Home), the day that Sire Records simultaneously issued four LPs, Talking Heads '77, Richard Hell and the VoidOids' Blank Generation, The Saints' (I'm) Stranded and the Dead Boys' Young Loud and Snotty. Of the four albums, all of which are pretty fondly remembered or even revered in select circles nowadays, I liked the latter two a lot more than the former. The Saints and especially the Dead Boys held nothing back with their snarling vocals, jagged buzzsaw guitars and relentless faster-than-your-average-band tempos. As far as I was concerned, they were genuine punk rock. The Talking Heads and Richard Hell, by my late-teenage standard of measure, were OK, but kind of soft and whiny. They were a notch below; they were new wave.

That marketing campaign, and subsequent efforts to sell New Wave acts like Television, Patti Smith, the Buzzcocks, Elvis Costello, Blondie and many others, was probably more of a favor to A&R men looking to wean their clients off of disco and what's now labeled "classic rock" than a sincere tribute to the original New Wave/Nouvelle Vague that preceded their efforts two decades earlier. And it turned out to be a lot more successful in the long term than would be judged in more immediate returns on that investment. By the time some of the late 70s New Wave bands hit their commercial stride in the early 80s, the label had already been dropped or misapplied to the point it became meaningless, maybe even pejorative. The net result, for me anyway, was that for a long time, New Wave served as a synonym for watered down, less daring, commercially compromised versions of "the real thing."

In due time, I grew up and came to realize that the original New Wave in cinema, though not without its own commercial aspirations, was indeed a significant movement fully deserving my respect and attention. (I also came to realize that some of that softer, whiny New Wave music had a lot more punch and bite to it than the poseurs who hid behind loud amplification could muster, but that story belongs in a different context, not here...) And with the arrival of Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless in my queue for this blog, I think I have a better understanding of why those early music marketers saw a resemblance between what was happening in the emergence of punk and what had happened when Godard and his peers stood up and loudly refuted the presumptions and mannerisms of the cinematic mainstream in an earlier era. Breathless is, in my view, a rough equivalent to Never Mind The Bollocks Here's The Sex Pistols: Brash, anarchic, subversively funny, aware of its provocations and happy to offend, yet still conscious of the need to provide something genuinely catchy, entertaining and sincere, though only to a point.

I'm not going to go too much further in defending that thesis; disagree, push back all you want, I'll issue a reply but I'm not out to change your mind on the topic - I can "take it or leave it each time" (to quote Richard Hell.) But as I've been watching Breathless and the associated supplements on the Criterion blu-ray over the course of the past week, the similarities in their cocky tone and how they relish the opportunity to deconstruct and reconstruct elements derived from earlier expressions of rebellion grow ever harder to avoid. Though neither the Pistols' LP nor Godard's feature debut were "the first" in their respective Waves, they both stand apart as singular shots across the bow, arguably surpassed in artistic merits by others in those same movements but still undeniable reference points for anyone revisiting their histories. And for anyone who wants to say that either Bollocks or Breathless are the purest statements of each scene's revolutionary ideals, the arguments are relatively direct, uncomplicated and persuasive.

Of course, the differences between the Sex Pistols and Jean-Luc Godard as artists are just as numerous and substantial, as a comparison of the subsequent length of their careers makes obvious. Breathless is, for starters, immeasurably sexier than anything associated with Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious and company. Building on the raw magnetism of Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg's enigmatic take on the "good girl gone bad" theme, Godard clearly understood the enhanced impact that an appealing and fresh-faced young couple can have on drawing in and holding his audience's attention. Of course the pair needs to be utilized properly, and in Breathless they are, either in spite of or because of the highly spontaneous, intuitive approach Godard used in constructing his film - writing dialog day by day, keeping Belmondo, Seberg and nearly everyone else in the dark about where the story was heading, masterfully constructing dozens of small moments in which his actors would do very little besides walk down the street, or gaze either at or away from each other, looking fabulously cool each step and stage of the way.

Beyond the appealing lead actor casting, Breathless is gifted with a suave free-flowing jazz accompaniment, picking up where Miles Davis left off in his memorably evocative score for Louis Malles' Elevator to the Gallows. Raoul Coutard's low-light hand-held camera seems to always have found itself in the exactly right place to catch the little nuances of facial expressions and nice angles that give us that sense of being mute observers of intensely fascinating real life exchanges in a timelessly contemporary setting. With all these volatile, potentially explosive elements gathered together, as is always the case, the success of the venture came down to the editing. How the pieces were put together, sequenced, soundtracked, framed and presented to viewers, in such stark contrast to the typical movies of its time, had an immeasurable impact on how Breathless was originally received and how it continues to amaze us today.

Boiling the story of Breathless down to its essence then: Michel Poiccard, a two-bit hoodlum, steals a car, gets pulled over after a quick outburst of mindless impulsivity on the road, and shoots a cop in an equally reflexive bout of panic. He makes his way back to the city (crucially, right in the heart of downtown Paris) to meet up with a girl he's taken a liking to and wants to get with again. He knows he's on the lam, the law could swarm down on him at any minute, and he really doesn't have any plan on how to extricate himself from this jam. But his routine is to not worry too much about that stuff. He's an in-the-moment kind of guy, so far out on his limb of risk and misadventure that reeling it in and playing it cautious simply doesn't make any sense at this point.

Patricia Franchini is an American who, without much explanation, wound up at 20 years of age hawking copies of the New York Herald-Tribune on the Champs-Elysee, making a go of it as an ex-pat in Paris when so many other options might have seemed more practical. She had a brief fling with Michel, didn't really expect to see him again, but here he is, accosting her abruptly as she walks her route, obviously intent on pursuing her in earnest seduction. She's willing to play along with his game, but she has other tasks to attend to, so he'll have to wait his turn. She aspires to be a writer, following in the legendary footsteps of other American free spirits who've established their literary reputations in decades past by tramping for a time in the City of Lights. Some free wheeling romance with a ruggedly virile, yet shady character from the back alleys of Paris is just grist for her mill, a story in the making, let's see where this goes.

Step by step, Michel and Patricia draw their partner into each other's worlds, though Michel, on account of the cataclysmic life or death stakes that surround him, winds up exerting the greater influence. The centerpiece of the film, and their relationship, is the long drawn-out hotel scene, a cramped 25-minute 1:1 that the rest of the world is privileged to peep in on. In a film crammed full of iconic moments, the segment that kicks off with Michel, having shamelessly helped himself into Patricia's bed, stripped down to his boxers and a few flecks of jewelry while she was at work, playfully batting down her defenses until she contentedly succumbs to his wiles, is one that rewards multiple views. It's a brilliantly mundane battle of amorous wits, simultaneously as shallow and profound, deep and ephemeral as only a conversation of twenty-somethings in various degrees of infatuation can be. Seberg cuddling her teddy bear and grimacing in the mirror, beguiling us with her flawlessly striking yet casual style, Belmondo idly flipping through the pages of a nudie magazine, effortlessly blowing magnificently florid plumes of smoke and dropping ashes in the sheets... each manage to capture a snapshot of youthful femininity and masculinity as it stood in 1959 and still finds a way to epitomize over 50 years later. A moment of calm before the storm that Michel knows is close to breaking out, and that Patricia will soon find engulfing her, though she suspects little more than the fact that a pushy but attractive young man has pressed himself unavoidably into a moment of decision that she has to now deal with.

Does Breathless have a lasting message to be reckoned with here? I'm not sure that it does, though there's no shortage whatsoever of things worth praising about this film. As much an homage to the films that Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol and the rest of the Cahiers du Cinema conspirators loved and drew inspiration from as it is a testimony to the compelling power of youthful attraction and reckless daring that cinema captures more effervescently than any other medium, Breathless is the kind of film that rightfully deserves as much scrutiny, praise and prolonged reflection as it's generated over the past five decades. The impulse that drives Breathless to its fatalistic, exhilarating conclusion, one of the most memorable and iconic death scenes of all time, is one more demanding to be experienced than merely analyzed. It's the kind of film I'm ultimately more eager to talk about than write about... or maybe I can continue on a bit further in the Comments section if anyone wants to join me in dissecting any of the innumerable delights to be found in this film.


Criterion's blu-ray and DVD package offers plenty in the way of background information for anyone wanting to dig deeper into the origins of Breathless or learn more about the personalities that burned themselves into our memory. Particularly moving is a video essay recapping the career and sad demise of Jean Seberg, who got caught up in bad marriages, radical political activism and subsequent persecution from the FBI, before ultimately succumbing twenty years later to ever-mounting suicidal urges. Claude Ventura's pilgrimage/documentary, Chambre 12, Hotel de Suede, tracking down as many of the key players who made Breathless (including a brusquely dismissive Godard himself, over the phone), serves as proof of the obsessively transforming effect that a preoccupation with the film can have on a person who tries to determine with some degree of certainty just where Breathless derives its magic. It's an enjoyable quest, but ultimately futile. Breathless is simply a sterling example of cinematic alchemy, a project that just as easily could have been a forgettable flop, as Belmondo and others intimately involved with the project originally thought it would be. That it turned out to be such a world changer, against all odds, is attributable to the same mysterious forces that, from time to time, help uniquely iconic visions that are, to some extent, arrogant towards the mass of humanity find a more receptive audience than their creators and those who facilitated or opposed their creation ever expected.

Next: Le Trou