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Vol. LXIV, No. 22
 
Wednesday, June 2, 2010
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DVD Review

Once Upon a Time in the Sixties — Rebels, Outlaws, and Uneasy Riders

Stuart Mitchner

“Breathless” was the sort of film where anything goes; that was what it was all about…. Although I felt ashamed of it at one time … now I see where it belongs — along with “Alice in Wonderland.” I thought it was “Scarface.”.

Jean Luc Godard, December 1962

I thought the crazier you behaved, the better artist you would be. And there was a time when I had a lot of energy to display how crazy that was.

Dennis Hopper, May 2002

“Not for the kids!” cautions New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther, referring to Jean Luc Godard’s Breathless, one of the first blasts of the sixties fired across the bow of the sinking ship of the fifties only weeks after John F. Kennedy took office and announced the New Frontier. Released a year earlier in France as À bout de souffle, Breathless is being shown at New York’s Film Forum through June 10 in honor of the picture’s 50th anniversary.

“Sordid is really a mild word for this gross pile-up of indecencies,” according to Crowther. “It is emphatically, unrestrainedly vicious, completely devoid of moral tone … an element of youth that is vagrant, disjointed, animalistic, and doesn’t give a damn about anybody or anything, not even itself”; its two “downright fearsome” main characters are “an efficiently self-defensive animal in a glittering, glib, irrational, heartless world” played by Jean Seberg and an “alarmingly amoral” French “car thief and hoodlum” played by a “hypnotically ugly new young man by the name of Jean-Paul Belmondo.” As for the direction of this “unattractive subject,” it “progresses in a style of disconnected cutting that might be described as ‘pictorial cacophony.’”

The intensity of moral alarm in Crowther’s response to Godard’s first full-length film presages the cultural divide that became deeper and wider as the new decade progressed. Seven years later Crowther was considered so out of touch with the currents of the time that he lost his job after a 27 year run, primarily due to his panning and continued disparaging of another iconic sixties movie, Bonnie and Clyde (“a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy … as pointless as it is lacking in taste”). This one-man vendetta apparently cost him his chance to vent on the “unattractive subject” of drug-crazed hippiedom in another archetypal sixties picture, Easy Rider, whose director and star, Dennis Hopper, died May 29 at the age of 74.

Thus the rough beast of the sixties slouched toward Woodstock, Manson, Altamont, and Nixon through ten years of assassinations and innovations, rock and roll, race riots and wars, from Breathless, which ends with Belmondo’s Michel dying in the middle of the rue Campagne Première, doing his Bogart face one last time as Seberg’s Patricia, the American girl who betrayed him, stands by in a knee-length, peppermint-striped party dress (a veritable ode to the fifties); to the spectacular Tommygun dance of death conclusion of Bonnie and Clyde; to Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda blown away like so much road kill at the end of Easy Rider in 1969.

Anything Goes

Godard must have been delighted by Crowther’s heated reaction, not just that the great grey eminence of the buttoned-up buttondown fifties is raving, feverishly excited in spite of himself, tripping over his phrases, scattering gems like “hypnotically ugly,” but because he seems to be recoiling from an attack, spewing a smokescreen of words that testify to the infectious climate of the film even as he struggles to condemn it, concluding breathlessly, that, like it or not, Breathless is “a chunk of raw drama, graphically and artfully torn with appropriately ragged edges out of the tough underbelly of modern metropolitan life.”

Godard had mixed feelings himself about Breathless, which premiered in Paris 50 years ago this March. In the interview from 1962 quoted above, after admitting that the “anything goes” nature of the project surpassed his expectations, taking him to Wonderland instead of policier-style reality, Godard claims to have once even been ashamed of it. Why ashamed? In a filmed interview from Cannes given some months after the picture’s original release and triumphant reception, he admits, “I feel as if I like cinema less because I made a popular film,” adding that he doesn’t want the audience to “trust” him. Imagine Fellini saying of La Dolce Vita, which caused a great stir of its own in 1960, that he liked cinema less because he’d made a popular film or that he doesn’t want the audience to trust him. Godard’s not merely sounding off when he speaks of popularity as a threat to his love of cinema, he’s casting his lot against the system, an outlaw provocateur whose subsequent films will test and provoke the audience instead of making love to it the way Fellini does. True to his anger and his art, Godard means what he says. The interview format, casual or formal, is central to his aesthetic, and his belief in taking responsibility for what he says at any given moment is a principle he has Anna Karina charmingly articulate at length in Vivre Sa Vie (1962).

In 1964, facing another interviewer (both filmed interviews are included in Criterion’s excellent 2-disc DVD), Godard’s already looking masked and middle-aged as he reiterates his feelings about Breathless (“Its success was a mistake”), though his terms are more grandiose. He sees it as “the end of cinema,” a compelling notion to embrace when you’re setting your sights on the next new thing.

Room 12, Hotel de Suede

In 1960, when Godard tells a reporter from Le Monde that Breathless is “a documentary on Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg,” he’s probably thinking of the film’s best-known sequence. Take a small hotel room, with no more than eight or nine inches between bed and bedside table, a few steps between bed and bathroom, nowhere to go but the almighty bed, and add two actors who show up each morning with no idea what lines they’ll be given to speak. After Godard recites the dialogue he’s written for them that same day, they take it from there. How much artifice either actor brings to the existential, quasi-documentary moment is impossible to know, of course, though there’s an obvious contrast between their affect during the offscreen interviews included with the Criterion DVD and how they behave when saying and doing things according to the director’s instructions and in response to the chemistry of the situation. So you have two boxed-in actors moving about in a space where the bed has to be crossed over like a bridge if they want to get to the window on the other side of the room they’re sharing with Raoul Cotard, who is seated in a wheelchair with a handheld camera while being pushed along for dolly shots by Godard like a patient by a nurse. There’s no room for anyone or anything else. The script girl has to stand outside the door.

Counterpoint

When she’s being interviewed, Jean Seberg’s French is noticeably smoother than it is onscreen and her manner is more natural. In the film, particularly in the hotel room scene, her awkward, American-accented French creates an uneasy, if diverting, counterpoint with Belmondo’s crusty, fluent, easygoing Gallic expressiveness. And while she has reason to be ill at ease with the female interviewer, whose questions touch on personal issues, her smiles are more natural, in contrast to the superficial facade she sustains at all but a few, rare, even then ambiguous, moments of intimacy with Belmondo. To appreciate how chilly her smiles are, how indicative of her behavior at the end, compare Seberg’s pampered-looking cool to the sweet, open face of Chantal Goya as Madeleine in Godard’s Masculin Feminin (1966). When Madeleine smiles, she smiles all the way, and you can’t help smiling watching her. Seberg’s smiles are most of them like her French, stiff, second-hand, and inane.

For all his Bogart moves, Belmondo looks comparatively loose and natural, and there are times in the hotel room scene when he seems close to comprehending what he’s up against. If he weren’t so self-absorbed, he might see that the cute Herald-Tribune news girl he wants to run away with to Rome is an abyss. If anyone is in the role of Alice in Godard’s Wonderland, it’s not Seberg, it’s Belmondo.

It would take another column to do justice to the still fresh adrenaline-rush energy of Breathless, the sense of on-the-spot, street-smart, newspaper-deadline immediacy created by Godard and Raoul Cotard, not to mention Parisian nightscapes that Brassai himself might envy, and all along the way the musical eruptions engineered by jazz pianist Martial Solal, who provides themes for each of the two main players.

Dennis Hopper

If Bosley Crowther thought Belmondo’s “impudent, arrogant … cruel young punk” was scary, imagine his response to Dennis Hopper as the stoned out hippie biker in his low-budget, hugely successful counterculture classic, Easy Rider, or, better yet, the amyl-nitrate-snorting psychopath in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986). When Life Magazine featured Hopper on the cover a year after Easy Rider, an outraged reader echoed Crowther’s “Not for the kids” when she asked “Is it any wonder that we’re in the shape we are in, when our children look upon such sludge as heroes?”

As a personality and an actor, Hopper had more of the volatile sixties energy in him than did either Godard or Belmondo. Though Jack Nicholson steals Easy Rider with the help of Hopper’s dialogue, it was Hopper’s performance as Billy that captured the druggy, sixties ambience, and it was Hopper’s direction that gave the film its movement, thanks to what Manohla Dargis called the (shades of Breathless) “propulsive, eye-thwacking edits” in her April 7 New York Times piece on the installation of a star with Hopper’s name on it in Hollywood’s “Walk of Fame.”

Criterion editions of Godard are available at the Princeton Public Library, which also has DVDs of Hopper in action in, among others,“ Easy Rider, Blue Velvet, An American Friend,” and “True Romance” (1993), where he stares death in the face while masterfully delivering a Quentin Tarantino tour de force.

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