Qu’est ce que c’est “dégueulasse”?

It seems almost churlish some half century later to be picking apart Breathless (À bout de souffle) If there’s a film that’s critic proof, it’s this; after all, it’s the brain child of Truffaut and Godard, esteemed critics themselves who decided to rewrite the language of cinema.  These mavericks got out of their writing rooms and onto the streets with their cameras, their heads filled with an encyclopedic knowledge of classic cinema that in turn allowed them to turn movies on their head.

At least, that’s the way the narrative tends to go, with Breathless blowing in a new wave of cinematic language and expression. There are the ubiquitous nouvelle vague jump cuts, mumbled dialogue, breaking of the fourth wall, creating essentially a deconstruction of the “rules” that cinema had established in its first fifty years. Looking back now, the film sits literally at the half way point in the history of feature films. It was important and groundbreaking 50 years ago, but does the film still remain vital?

Screening at the newly minted Lightbox with a recently restored print, Breathless proved once again unequivocally that it remains a touchstone of cinema. Its opening sequence remains bold and shocking, its quirky performances and multiple allusions to what was then classic cinema (Bogartisms abound) has the film holding up extremely well.  The film was meant to have the rhythms of modern Jazz, and with its staccato dialogue and montage style it oozes a level of hip that’s been much appropriated in films that followed.  Years before Bonnie and Clyde, and decades before bantering dialogue from the likes of Reservoir Dogs, this is a celebration of the anti hero, as the pretty girl falls for and betrays the charismatic rogue.

When a cop killer is this charming is this fun to watch you know that you’re in new territory – Belmondo oozes a charisma, bridging both supreme confidence and a nervous twitch that makes him one of the more memorable characters in cinema.  Seberg is absolutely stunning in an almost effortless way, glamorous and beautiful in a simple t-shirt as she peddles papers on the Champs-Élysées.  Her discomfort with idiomatic French is a keystone to the snappy dialogue (culminating, of course, in the final phrase of the film and her asking once again for a translation, one that the detective misinterprets).

There are elements of the film that of course date not as well as other elements – Martial Solal’s score, while groundbreaking, does get a bit repetitive, hardly appearing to be quite as avant garde as it must first have been, a very European-sounding take on the American artform.  Additionally, several of the more showy cinematic elements have also not aged quite as well, including the iris-ins that could easily have been seen on a film by Griffith.

Still, these are extremely minor nits to pick – the film feels breezy, there’s an incessant drive to the narrative that provides a quick pulse even when it takes time to linger on an image.  The handheld shots and stark photography are exemplary, and some key scenes (the lights of the Champs turning on in a wide shot, Sebring framed against the photograph of herself she hangs on the wall) are truly breathtaking.

Classic films are often celebrated more for what they did than how they hold up themselves. Like only a few key works, Breathless is both timeless and uniquely representative of the time in which is was made, a transcendent cinematic experience that led to generations of films that followed it.  Yet, crucially, this is fun film to watch, no academic exercise here, simply a heap of fun seeing these two young things trapsing through the streets of Paris in a series of stolen convertibles.

As for the print screening at Lightbox, it’s in extremely good shape.  There are a couple shots where it seems key frames are missing (the screen flashed black). In the scenes where English is spoken there are burned-in French subtitles.  The translation from the French is quite disappointing, where the subtitles use quite softened language for the insults pervasive through the film.  For example, when Michel tells someone to “Fuck-off” (Vas te faire foutre) we get the equivalent of “Go to heck!”  The impact of the final line is in fact quite egregiously softened, translating “dégueulasse” as being  a “louse”, where something like “bitch” would far better convey the slang, and in tern make more sense of the final exchange (equivalent of “This is truly a bitch!” (or, “Life’s a bitch!”)/”What did he say?”/”He said you are truly a bitch”/”What’s a bitch?”).   Thankfully current DVD and Blu-Ray translations do a far better job at articulating the rhythm and delightful crudeness of the dialogue, but for those without a grasp of the French they’ll get at this screening a softened, censored version of the script.

All caveats aside, this was an absolute pleasure to see this film on the fine screen at Lightbox.  With comfortable seats, a great screen and excellent sound, we finally have a real, honest-to-God Cinemateque in our city, a theatre worthy for being called the home of the finest public festival in the world.  The upcoming Essential Cinema program is an excellent opportunity to see these prints on the big screen, and a far better experience than anything that poor Jackman could ever accommodate.  Starting out with the movie that shaped nearly every film that screened this year at TIFF, Breathless continues to take our breath away all these decades later.

Breathless plays the Lightbox starting Thursday, September 30, 2010.  For information or tickets for the Essential Cinema series you can visit TIFF.net/essential