Jean-Paul Belmondo's style stands out in restored 1960 film
By Sarah Kaufman
Friday, July 9, 2010
"I want to know what's behind your face," purrs Jean Seberg to Jean-Paul Belmondo, midway through the landmark 1960 French film "Breathless." "I've looked at it for 10 minutes and I still know nothing, nothing."
So do we. Belmondo's face, magnificently planed and sloped as it is, tells us zilch in this movie. Newly restored and re-subtitled for its 50th anniversary, the story of a thug marooned in Paris that helped launch a new cinematic style is, in fact, an inadvertent ode not to Belmondo's looks, but to his body.
I say "inadvertent" because, tragically (eh oui, one cannot overdramatize when referring to a French film), director Jean-Luc Godard does not fully exploit Belmondo's gift of physical grace. "Breathless," which opens Friday for a weeklong run at the AFI Silver, loses air every time it opts for close-ups. But let Belmondo saunter downstairs while he's lighting one of his fat cigarettes, or swagger through a lobby, or shadowbox in his underwear, and the film hums with raw, freewheeling elegance.
We don't see a lot of male grace in films nowadays -- built-up bulk and a punchier, more robust aesthetic have taken its place. Go back to the 1950s and, particularly in the art films, there's a subtler, more detailed attention to the male form and its ability to express emotion. Belmondo may not be as polished as a Cary Grant, nor as sensuously sculpted as a Marlon Brando. His character in "Breathless" is perfectly hateful -- a petty thief who sees himself as a classy tough even as he's robbing and insulting his girlfriends. But what's fascinating is that the way he carries himself tells us something entirely different.
We fall in love with this lowlife not because of his lines or his story but because of his moves. He bursts with an endearing, boyish energy, light-footed and carefree, fed by the restless motor of a dreamer. The jacked-up optimism in the way Belmondo moves tells us his character has heart, wit and promise, even if his words convey the very opposite.
Belmondo plays Michel, who heads to Paris from Marseille in a stolen car to a) retrieve money he is owed and b) lure his sometime girlfriend Patricia (Seberg) into running away with him to Rome. A romantic with a psychopathic streak, he ends up killing a policeman in a highway stop. Fugitive status only energizes him; once he reaches Paris, Michel is in open pursuit of Patricia, the guy who owes him the cash and his own notion of noirish glamour.
"After all, I am a jerk," Michel mutters to himself. But it's not a confession; it's self-flattery, spoken with pride -- and with an unfiltered Boyard between those bluefish lips.
You could almost choke on all the smoke in this film, but the most visceral effect is that of Belmondo in motion. To me, it's the main reason to see it. Otherwise, Godard's anti-technique makes for a film with no momentum. Historic as it is -- "Breathless" was a leader of the radical French New Wave movement, with its rejection of exacting rehearsals and locked-down scripts -- there's nothing so breathless here as its star and his dancerlike beauty.
It's too bad Godard didn't linger more on Belmondo's natural ease of movement, because rawness was exactly what the director was after. The film is known for Godard's jump-cuts, the long takes on Paris side streets and the more-or-less improvised dialogue. But with its meandering narrative and slapdash script, the work would scarcely merit attention outside film schools all these years later without Belmondo, his ease of locomotion, the athlete's precision and timing.
In one early scene he drops in on an old flame, sniffing around for cash. She finds a boppy little dance tune on the radio; in perfect response Michel turns a quick spin and whirls away -- a throwaway moment, made indelible with his hips.
Best of all is his walk, set off by the jazz soundtrack (alternately cool and cheesy, with its xylophone chimes and muted trumpets). The long stride, the oversize jacket bobbing above it. He's filmed to look big and broad-shouldered, but it's the fluidity of his stride and the harmony in his whole body that telegraph abundant confidence. Head tipped back, posture regal, he's a man brimming with self-assurance and vitality. There's a bit of coiled-up James Dean impatience and the intensity of Montgomery Clift, but Belmondo adds his own fillip. He has a full-body expressiveness -- a relaxed, outgoing and uninhibited physicality, as if he's the solo star in the dance of life -- that you find so seldom in an American movie actor. He ripples with life.
Contrast that vitality with Seberg's Patricia, beautiful and boring. She never has anything interesting to say, and Godard seems to believe her allure begins and ends with her haircut, a masterpiece of cuteness that is filmed from every conceivable angle.
Seberg doesn't have any kind of physical signature, but Belmondo shows us his at every opportunity. There's the way he descends stairs as soft as a cat, knees in a deep plie, while lighting up another smoke. The taut abs and toned arms of a boxer (a sport in which he'd trained). He throws punches at the mirror and you feel exhilarated because that's what he's feeling. His voluptuousness is in direct contrast with Seberg's placid cool. But it doesn't make for chemistry. They hardly have a thing to say to each other, though they talk and talk in an aimless bedroom scene that has to be one of the unsexiest on record. She shrugs off his advances, he pouts and calls her a coward and the scene drones on, a meditation on the infernal dullness of being cooped up with no money, unspooling in real time.
That's the downfall of this film. It becomes too real -- capturing the inconsequential ramblings and banal detail of life. There's an artistic point to that, of course -- the randomness and insignificance of our existence, etc. -- but "Breathless" has the proportions wrong. Too much rambling, too little point. Thank goodness there's Belmondo, who when he is unleashed introduces a whole beautiful world, as his name suggests -- a realm that's still fresh, alive and seductive. He is the real and the ideal.