Breathless [Á bout de souffle]

(France 1960)

“After all, I’m an asshole.”

—Michel Poiccard

The third time is a charm: after seeing Jean Luc-Godard’s first full length feature film, Breathless, I now understand the love-meh relationship I have with his work.

On one hand, he’s got a remarkable grasp of human behavior and what motivates it. He’s got a snarky sense of humor. He’s stylish. His technique is gutsy for a lot of reasons. His characters are flawed. His subject matter is cool. He knows how to make a film look pretty, and most of them might as well be deemed official historical documents of the places where they were shot. Seeing a Godard film is like traveling back in time, an incidental bonus he probably never considered. I love all of this.

For all his strengths, on the other hand, a Godard film can be so damned…boring. Merde!

Fortunately, that’s not quite the case with Breathless, which I actually enjoyed. Godard and François Truffaut developed the story—I won’t call it a script or a screenplay because they made up much of it as they went along. Plot is always a loose construct with Godard, but there’s enough of one here to follow along fairly easily. Ugly cute guy (or is he a cute ugly guy?) Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a drifter car thief who fancies himself a French Humphrey Bogart, steals a car and drives it through the countryside. He shots and kills a policeman who pursues him.

With nowhere else to go, he heads straight to his American girl, Patricia (Jean Seberg), an expat student who sells a newspaper, the now defunct New York Herald Tribune, on the Champs-Élysées—that’s kind of weird—and writes articles here and there. She brings Michel to her apartment, where he hides out. He doesn’t mention anything to her about what happened. They get it on, or at least it’s implied that they do. She’s tells him she’s pregnant. One extended scene involves them lying around, talking.

Michel becomes a marked man, which he discovers soon enough after he leaves the apartment with Patricia and sees a newspaper with a headline about him. I won’t ruin the ending, but it doesn’t bode well for him—especially after Godard himself sees Michel.

Breathless is a psuedo noir thriller that’s low on action but loaded with morally vacant characters who lack any redeeming qualities. There’s a nihilistic sexiness to it. The narrative moves along in a jazzy free-form way, and the imagery here is every bit a part of the story as the characters. The ending is not a happy one. If nothing else, Breathless is a visual stunner—black and white cinematic candy. The restored digital version I saw literally glowed.

I can handle more films like this one.

With Daniel Boulanger, Henri-Jacques Huet, Roger Hanin, Van Doude, Liliane David, Michel Fabre, Jean-Pierre Melville, Claude Mansard, Jean-Luc Godard, Richard Balducci, Jacques Rivette

Production: Les Films Impéria, Les Productions Georges de Beauregard, Société Nouvelle de Cinématographie (SNC)

Distribution: Films Georges de Beauregard, Les Films Impéria, Société Nouvelle de Cinématographie (SNC), Euro International Film (EIA) (Italy), Pallas Filmverleih (West Germany), British Lion Film Corporation (UK), Cinematográfica Azteca (Mexico), Ciné Vog Films (Belgium), Wivefilm (Sweden), Films Around the World (USA), Rialto Pictures (USA), Criterion Collection (USA)

90 minutes
Not rated

(iTunes rental) B

http://www.jean-lucgodard.com/films.html

https://www.criterion.com/films/268-breathless

Private Property

(USA 1960)

Private Property, a weird and fascinating psychological thriller written and directed by Leslie Stevens and shot over the course of five days in 1959, is the best film I never heard of. Believed “lost” for decades, a print was recently discovered in the UCLA film archives, restored, and shown for the first time in more than half a century just this past May at the TCM Classic Film Festival (https://hqofk.wordpress.com/2016/05/10/2016-tcm-classic-film-festival-private-property-1960/)(http://filmfestival.tcm.com/programs/films/private-property/). It is, in a word, a treat.

Duke (Corey Allen) and Boots (Warren Oates) are two shady Southern California vagabonds who subsist by stealing, usually intimidating their victims into giving them what they want—orange soda, cigarettes, a lift to Beverly Hills. All it takes is Duke’s thinly veiled threats delivered in his cold, menacing manner and a flash of their knives. The boys are sitting on the sidewalk outside the gas station on the Pacific Coast Highway where they just scored some loot when Ann Carlyle (Kate Manx), a beautiful kept housewife in a Corvette, pulls in to ask the attendant for directions. Duke is clearly intrigued by Ann, and he immediately hatches a demented plan to follow her and get Boots, a virgin, laid for the first time.

Ann unwittingly leads them to the Hollywood Hills, where she lives a seemingly idyllic life in a gorgeous home with her husband, Roger (Robert Ward), an insurance executive. Duke and Boots scope out the area and find an empty house for sale right next door to Ann. They squat there and spy on her from an upstairs window as she sunbathes, swims, gardens, eats, and comes and goes throughout the day.

In the privacy of their home, it becomes plain that Roger is more interested in work than in Ann, who not so subtly throws herself at him—splayed out on the living floor with her legs spread in one scene, and all dolled up in a negligee (no doubt from Frederick’s) in another—but can’t seem to get him to take a bite of her apple, so to speak. She stands in front of their bed and cries when she emerges from her dressing room ready for love one night, only to find him sound asleep.

Duke, who deduces that she’s unfulfilled, devises an introduction with Ann: he knocks on her door after Roger leaves for work and poses as a day worker looking for someone else’s house—the Hitchcock residence, of all places. He makes small talk about landscaping and offers to do some gardening work. The exchange sets off an unsettling connection that culminates in a bizarre lunch date in the back yard when Roger flies to San Francisco for the day.

Even with its flaws, I absolutely loved this film—it completely lured me with all it’s got going on. Simmering with sexual tension, ambiguity, and mystery, Stevens lets the plot unfold slowly, step by eerie step—very much like Hitchcock or, much later, David Lynch. It works: Duke is a psychopath, and watching him plot his next move made my skin crawl as much as it kept me glued to the screen. Boots is gay. His relationship with Duke is strange and undefined: it’s not clear whether they’re lovers, but Boots is definitely the submissive one. Roger is asexual. Manx, who has a sweet Barbara Eden thing about her and who was married to Stevens when Private Property was shot (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/obituary-leslie-stevens-1159807.html), brilliantly depicts the gamut of feelings Ann goes through: frustration, confusion, longing, hope, and loneliness. She’s a vulnerable character, and it hurts to watch her at times. Side note: knowing that Manx committed suicide a few years later makes her performance here all the more tragic (http://mobile.nytimes.com/1964/11/17/kate-manxactress-is-suicide.html). Ted McCord’s shimmering black and white cinematography and camera work add a ton of character to an already stylish and unusual film.

Promoted as “the boldest story of a planned seduction ever to scald the screen,” Private Property had to be scandalous in its day. It promises the kind of smut in a pulp paperback. It’s simultaneously groundbreaking—for its time, anyway—with its subject matter, yet surprisingly inoffensive. Sex is not shown—it’s all implied. Ann never says she’s horny—she shows it, for example, by rubbing along her neck the big phallic stopper of a huge perfume bottle and lying in bed with Duke’s belt under a towel next to her (oddly, she also puts his belt around her neck at one point). Profanity is whitewashed—in one of the film’s most ludicrous moments, an exasperated Duke utters, “What the flop?” He doesn’t call Boots “gay” or even “homosexual”—the closest he gets is something about finding a daddy.

The ending is disappointingly predictable, but it’s not so bad that it ruins the wonderfully suspenseful ride that brought us to it. From a historical perspective, Private Property stands as a seething criticism of post-War American values. It’s also got great exteriors of a long gone Los Angeles. I won’t forget this one.

79 minutes
Not rated

(Facets) A-

Private Property

The Passionate Thief [Risate di gioia]

(Italy 1960)

A quirky trio—Tortorella (Anna Magnani), an aging film extra; her buddy, professional fraudulent claimant Umberto (Toto); and his partner in petty theft, Lello (Ben Gazzara)—converge through a series of mishaps on New Year’s Eve. Their conflicting agendas become clear as they move from one crazy character and mad caper to the next, ultimately ending up in church.

A decidedly unglamorous take on Roman life reminiscent of Hollywood “screwball comedies” of the Thirties and Forties, Mario Monicelli’s The Passionate Thief is a lot of fun despite a couple of tiresome scenes I zoned out on. Fred Clark’s portrayal of “the American”—loud, rich, and unsophisticated yet likable—made me laugh out loud.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B-

http://www.rialtopictures.com/passionatethief.html

L’avventura

(Italy 1960)

I’ve really been digging Italian midcentury films lately. L’avventura was not one of them. Anna (Lea Massari) is a weirdo with a bug up her butt– about love, marriage, intimacy, whatever. While on a boating excursion with her fiancé, Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti), and a group of friends, she has a meltdown and tells Sandro that she wants to be alone– then promptly disappears. Like, without a trace. This sets off a hunt for the psycho, and one of her friends, Claudia (Monica Vitti), gets involved with Sandro. Trouble starts.

L’avventura has hot women (particularly Vitti), cool cars, and a rad surf-music theme song. Other than that, it’s way too long, slow, boring, and not artfully done. It lacks the cinematic pizzazz of Italian films from this period: the settings are nothing special, and it has a cheap look to it. I didn’t care what happened to Anna by the end. Ciao bella.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) D

http://www.janusfilms.com/lavventura/

La Dolce Vita

(Italy 1960)

What can I possibly say that hasn’t already been said about one of the most critically acclaimed films of all time? I loved it and I hated it at the same time.

I absolutely loved how beautifully it was filmed: the Italian landscape, the Roman street scenes, the elegant midcentury interiors, the cars and clothes and even hairdos. If nothing else, La Dolce Vita is a stunningly beautiful time capsule. Seeing Nico in action was also a treat—I have never seen her act anywhere else. I loved the character who was so obviously Marilyn Monroe. La Dolce Vita illustrates what a cool time the brink of the Sixties must have been.

What drove me crazy was the split up meandering “episodes” that did not seem cohesive or move quickly enough for my postmodern American sensibilities. And let’s be honest: three hours is a godawful length of time to sit through anything. However, the bad stuff is minor, and the good far outweighs it. I (think I) understand what Fellini was doing here, and I love it for that.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) A- (as if my little grade counts for anything)