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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
About That Last Puff
by Donald Levit

One year shy of fifty, the film creaks at the joints, and some of the laughs from the packed house were at rather than with. This is not 1983’s rockabilly remake with ball-of-fire Richard Gere enamored of a French girl in L.A., but the 1959 shoestring Breathless whose sharp piano-and-strings variations on a five-note theme have placed it within the Museum of Modern Art’s ambitious Jazz Score, five months of legendary international cinema, two live concerts (one by this film’s eighty-year-old pianist-composer, Martial Solal), an original score-retrospective CD, gallery exhibition and panel discussion.

His stripped script from a story by Truffaut, Nouvelle Vague Jean-Luc Godard captured the public with this first feature (after five shorts), Cécile Decugis’ disconnected jumpy cutting and cinematographer Raoul Coutard’s unsteady moving handhelds a visualization of the critic’s Cahiers du Cinéma disdain for France’s staid commercial post-War output. The director’s inventiveness continued to exert enormous influence on cinema, well beyond his late ‘60s shift to the political didactic.

From this very beginning, the not-yet-thirty auteur already approached two concerns of this, his most impressive decade. First there is the social and moral vacuum of existential characters, urban deracinés cut off from family and friends and, with in-the-moment situational ethics, from traditional standards. Reversing the received picture of New World naïf in Paris, a not-so-very-innocent, at times calculating American student of twenty drifts into a short intense affaire with a small-time hood from the provinces who cannot locate  Antonio Berrutti (Henri-Jacques Huet) who owes him money for the couple’s flight to Italy.

Second is Godard’s fascination with American films, in particular the raw immediacy and detached overview of the gangster genre. Billed often as not with title untranslated, À bout de souffle is, significantly, dedicated to low-budget Monogram Pictures, specialists in Westerns, crime melodrama, horror, the Bowery Boys and Charlie Chan.

In front of the camera for all but a few of the eighty-nine minutes, and shot to stardom, too, after nine small parts, is young Jean-Paul Belmondo, dangling a perpetual cigarette but saving the exhale until the end. His Michel Poiccard admits to a small fondness for Mozart’s clarinet concerto -- his dad played that instrument -- but is proudly uncultured, and not so street-savvy as he thinks. He is a softened Gallic take on American screen hoodlums, with a touch of contemporary Brando and Dean, although the famous Bogart worship is unsubtle even if it does furnish the heroine with a final, ambiguous hand movement.

Spinning wheels awaiting promised money, Michel steals the first of several cars, mutters machismos while joyriding, and casually kills the motorcycle policeman who follows him for overtaking in a work zone. Disheveled police Inspector Vital (Daniel Boulanger) goes after him at once, and his mug shot is all over the place.

Not so much insouciant as thoughtless, stealing indiscriminately from an ex-girlfriend or a patron in a men’s room, he foolishly returns to his known travel-agent contact at Air France, Tolmatchoff (Richard Balducci), and coaxes crop-haired International Herald Tribune vendor Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg) to let him make love to her again.

Slenderly muscled in white boxer shorts and socks, Michel lounges in her bed, but there is none of today’s gratuitous writhing flesh, although Patricia does check her tummy silhouette and announce she is pregnant, presumably by him, a fact they and the story proceed to ignore. A moodier intellectual to his cheerful brainlessness, she tacks up art posters, hopes to become a reporter-interviewer, prefers classical music and recites “between grief and nothing, I will take grief” from Faulkner, who he suggests is among her former lovers.

The police watch, while the lovers talk or rush about in one or another stolen convertible but don’t settle anything. A hint from now-better-dressed Vital helps her decide -- perhaps: her continued residence in France could be at stake, or it may be that, young, and motherhood still unconsidered, she is not about to lose her freedom and wishes “people [to] leave me alone.”

As casually and unexpectedly as Michel committed murder, Patricia makes a choice while out buying milk, and, equally from left field, Antonio drives up with the cash and an insisted something even more fatal. Belmondo’s antihero does not seem in rebellion against anything concrete, but there is a nobility in his choice. A smile, a moue, a puff of smoke and words she professes not to understand.   A half-century has softened the impact, but Breathless still holds its own. 

(Released by Fox Lorber; not rated by MPAA.)

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