A bout de souffle

by

Breathless: 50th Anniversary is out now in cinemas and on DVD/blu-ray September 13th. And to celebrate the re-release, Rodarte have teamed up to make limited edition t-shirts for the film available from Dover Street Market

Breathless, filmed by hand on a shoestring budget, signalled the arrival of French New Wave and changed film forever. Jean Luc Godard made it seem anyone could grab a camera and join the revolution. A chain-smoking Jean Paul Belmondo channelled Bogart. Jean Seberg got her big break as Patricia the pixie-faced traitress. Their affair, the jazz, the joyrides… Breathless was fresh, frenetic and sexy as hell. It is equally so at fifty. The camerawork and even the fashion sit comfortably with 2010 releases. Assistant director Pierre Rissient (dubbed “King of Cannes” by a reverent Quentin Tarentino) talked to Dazed.

Why do you think Breathless has such enduring appeal?
Pierre Rissient: It was a young film… I realise now how young we were. Godard was 29, I was 22, Jean Paul Belmondo was young, Jean Seberg was young… We were young people and it was a young film, so I think it is the youth of the film which has kept it alive.

DD: Did the completed film end up a different animal from what you and your colleagues set out to make in 1959?
Pierre Rissient: Not really. Clearly Jean Luc was thinking it would be a “B” OR “C” production because he lacked the lighting of film noir, etc. He also wanted to make it very fresh in terms of acting, dialogue and the characters’ attitudes. The one thing that was not planned was the jump-cutting. That came during the editing, it was not pre-planned. I don’t think that changed the film, I think it went along with what surged from the shooting. I think it was intended to edit the film in a far more straightforward way. He and his editor just decided used the jump-cut to remove some discrepancies.
DD: Breathless works as both a political film and a thriller. Which was it meant to be?

Pierre Rissient: I know Godard was a film buff at the time and we both liked the B film noirpictures of the forties and fifties. Film noir was political. I don’t think Godard consciously made this a political film but if you think it is political, I think you are right.

DD: Jean Seberg had previously starred in two major Hollywood productions – Saint Joanne and  Bonjour, Tristesse. How did she handle the unorthodox filming ofBreathless?
Pierre Rissient: She was very sweet, very charming. I think she was insecure, after working with Otto Preminger [on Saint Joanne]. She was surprised because Preminger had shot with a big camera, etc. I think the dialogue was set on both Saint Joan and Bonjour Tristesse. I don’t think she imagined that a film could be made with the dialogue part-written during the first reading. Her character was not as delineated as her characters in Saint Joan and Bonjour Tristesse were. She was happy to do it, if a little uncertain. She was very nice person.

DD: Is it true Godard wrote the dialogue for each day’s filming the night before? More or less true. What inspired the frequent literary references in the hotel room scene?
Pierre Rissient: They were from writers that he liked. You could say the same thing of [1963 Godard film] Le Mépris. I knew Fritz Lang [who played himself in the film] very well personally but I didn’t believe him in Le Mépris. Fritz Lang said the lines very well but I would never believe he [himself] thought of them. If Godard quotes someone [in his dialogue] without criticising it means that’s what he thinks.

DD: What is your favourite scene and why?
Pierre Rissient: I like when they move through the streets a lot, those scenes were very well captured. The [much lauded] long scene in the hotel room – though I think it is a very good scene – is not my favourite. I wouldn’t call it staged but it wasn’t unstaged. They were restricted in the room and dialogue is reactionary, whereas in all the other scenes action and dialogue happen together. It is less fresh than the rest of the film. My favourite things about the film are unexpected and it is the least unexpected scene.

DD: When did you realise that Breathless had made an impact on cinema on a par withCitizen Kane?
Pierre Rissient: When it came out it was immediately highly recognised. No one said it was as important as Citizen Kane or [made comparisons] like that. I am not sure Citizen Kane is as important as people say. In a way there is no film as important as what people say, even Á bout de souffle which was an important film and a turning point in many ways. It’s a combination of things that makes things change. It’s the convention to say films like Citizen Kane or Á bout de souffle was the causes after thing change but its not only that.

DD: You’re often quoted as saying said its not enough to just like a movie, you have to like it for the right reasons. What are the right reasons to like Breathless?
Pierre Rissient: Not to jerk off on the film, or on any film! Not to have some pseudo-intellectual masturbation over it.

DD: The author Patrick Foy wrote that today “Breathless could be reshot in its entirety (and in colour) using the iPhone, without any other equipment.”
Pierre Rissient: It depends what you do with it. For example the [1985] Jim McBride re-make of the film was not so bad but it is useless. I don’t think people should think of re-making it in a different way. If a young filmmaker wants to capture his own subject matter using an iPhone, fine. Try to make something out of that. I am sure it is possible that someone has done or will do an important film with an i-Phone but I want to see it first.

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