MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: Breathless; The Hunger Games: Catching Fire


Breathless (A Bout de Souffle) (Also Blu-ray) Four Stars. France; Jean-Luc Godard, 1959 (Criterion Collection) 

Godard. A Bout de Souffle. Out of breath. Breathless.

A guy named Michel Poiccard steals a car, drives from Marseilles to Paris, ecstatically sings of a girl named Patricia (“Pa-Pa-Pa-Patricia!“), finds a gun, shoots and kills a cop on the road, tries to cash an uncashable check, stares at and mimics a Bogart still in front of a cinema, finds Patricia hawking New York Herald Tribunes on the street, goes to her room, bandies with her about love, art, philosophy and William Faulkner (“Between grief and nothing I will choose  grief“)…


…He smokes endless cigarettes, gets betrayed, runs, gets shot, dies. “Deguelasse,” Michel mutters with his last breath, after staring and making faces at Patricia. “I don’t know what it means,’ says Patricia. She turns away from the camera. Finis.


That’s Breathless, the 1959 black-and-white Jean-Luc Godard French film classic that, like Orson Welles’ 1941 Citizen Kane — another masterpiece by a revolutionary cineaste still in his 20s — forever changed the ways we look at film, the way moviemakers shot movies and critics wrote about it, and perhaps changed the ways we look at life too.

There’s a key difference though. Welles made us believe that, if you could get all the tools of the movie industry at your disposal, you could tell stories so magical and deep, dense and rich and multi-leveled, that they’d open up a whole new world. Godard made us believe that, if you’d seen enough movies and were passionate about what you liked, you could grab a camera, find some friends, walk out on the street, and just start shooting. You could ignore much of the old studio apparatus and routine — and make a movie not according to the industry rules and protocols, but right out of your own life and thoughts, tastes and feelings.

Welles was a greater artist than Godard, and Kane the greater movie, still the best of all time in my opinion. But Godard’s feat was probably the more revolutionary: the more empowering, liberating experience. Citizen Kane, as Godard’s friend (later sometime target) François Truffaut once said, probably started more (studio) movie directors on their vocation than any other. But Breathless probably made more people everywhere actually believe they could make movies, whether they worked in a studio or not. There were decades of independent and experimental films before Breathless. But this was the one that, like Kane for the studio movie, made it all look so easy, so effortless. Just walk down a street with a camera. With a gun. With a girl. Just shoot.

Of course it’s not true. Breathless is a very artful piece, and a recognizable product of the French film industry. It was made by a director deeply schooled in film history and tradition and technique, even if its celebrated “jump cuts” –jagged editing leaps within a continuous scene, a technique which prompted the Time reviewer to call Breathless a “cubistic thriller” — made Godard’s movie look deliberately ragged and choppy. Actually, the jump cuts were accidental, providential, and not something Godard used all that much in his later films. Here, there was a reason. Godard had shot Breathless too long, needed to cut half an hour or more, and allegedly took his mentor/Breathless cast member Jean-Pierre Melville‘s advice not to cut whole scenes to shave off the extra time, but to cut within scenes. Hence: the jumps.

Godard’s youthful stars Jean Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg (Michel and Patricia) were not nonentities. Belmondo had made ten films before Breathless, including A Double Tour for Godard‘s buddy (and a Breathless technical advisor) Claude Chabrol. He‘d even starred as D‘Artagnan on a TV version of The Three Musketeers. Jean Seberg, while still in her teens, fresh out of Marshalltown Iowa, had made two big Hollywood movies for one of Godard’s favorite directors, Otto (Where the Sidewalk Ends) Preminger, starring in Preminger‘s versions of George Bernard Shaw’s play Saint Joan and Francois Sagan‘s novel “Bonjour Tristesse.” Even if they were both flops back then (and they look much better today) they were world famous flops.

So Godard wasn’t just walking out on the street with his Cahier du Cinema pals when he made Breathless. Still, there are as lot of his buddies and “Cahier-ites” involved in it — including not just Truffaut,Chabrol and Melville, and the brilliant young cinematographer Raoul Coutard, but future directors like Philippe De Broca, Jean-Louis Richard, Jean Douchet, Richard Balducci and Daniel Boulanger, who co-wrote De Broca’s King of Hearts and plays the dour cop chasing Michel, Inspector Vital.

Still, on screen Michel and Patricia do look like two good-looking kids who just wandered off the street into the movie. They’re perfect post-war movie lovers, blasé on the surface, dark or heart-broken underneath. They don’t talk the old familiar movie talk. They talk about life and art and politics. They josh and joust with each other. Coutard’s camera drifts around them. They smoke. We never see them screw, but we know they have.

One of the most often-cited, often discussed scenes in Breathless simply shows them lazing around Patricia’s room, staring or jabbering away, under prints of Renoir and Picasso. They don’t seem like a crook/killer and his trollop. They seem like a couple of intellectuals or semi-intellectuals, or a small-time hustler and a rich girl slumming. They’re involved in a thriller plot, taken by Truffaut from a real-life crime story. But it’s as if they just wandered into the thriller, just as they wandered into Patricia’s apartment.

Existentialism and Monogram Pictures (the low-budget studio to which Godard dedicated his film) embrace in Breathless. It’s a movie fed by many other movies, even if it suggests something off the cuff, unwinding before us, trapped in the machinery of chance. The presence of a gun in the glove compartment of the car Michel steals is utterly fortuitous, the murder (for all we can tell) almost an accident, something that just happened between two kids. Part of the love affair of a Bogie Fan and a Fallen Angel out Where the Sidewalk Ends.

That’s the key to most of Godard’s films of the 60s, which is still regarded (rightly) as his greatest period. It’s a movie-lover’s anti-movie, or counter-movie, a defiant act of rebellion by a director who knows the score and deliberately breaks the rules. Breathless came out shortly after Truffaut had revolutionized French film with his own great feature debut, The 400 Blows, the semi-autobiographical tale of a runaway movie-loving delinquent, named Antoine Doinel. And in a way, Breathless, made from the story Truffaut found, is Godard’s 400 Blows, his semi-autobiographical fantasy about a runaway movie-loving delinquent named Michel.

It was also a huge hit, the biggest critical and commercial success of Godard’s career. He never had another smash like Breathless, though, by now, he‘s made almost a hundred films, including, among them, a dozen or so inarguable classics, films like Vivre sa Vie, Pierrot le Fou and Contempt.

He became a Marxist for a while, and a lot of academics in the ‘70s argued that his (then) politics were a major part of what made him great — though Godard’s most blatantly political films, his essays and documentaries from the ’70s, are among his least effective, least memorable works. Later, he got drier, more rigorous. Breathless is easily the most powerful political (and antipolitical) movie he ever made, the most breathless  thriller, the most provocative essay, the most heart-wrenching romance. It’s had thousands of children. It still looks as fresh as it did in 1959, though other new black-and-white film is almost gone. We look at it today and we think: Anybody can do this. I can do this. Just find some friends. Find a camera. Find your heart. Just shoot. (In French and English, with subtitles.)

Included : An excellent set of extras.




THE HUNGER GAMES —  CATCHING FIRE (Three  Stars) U.S.: Francis Lawrence, 2013

Books were my first love, movies my second — so  some day, I may get around to reading Suzanne Collins’ mega-selling, widely read  young adult novel “Catching Fire.” But for the moment the big-money  blockbuster movie adapted from it — called The Hunger Games: Catching Fire — will have to suffice.

God knows they’ve spent enough moolah and expended enough time  and effort to get it to us.  The first Hunger Games movie was released in 2012, directed by Gary Ross (replaced here by Francis Lawrence of I Am Legend) and co-produced by Collins and others with much of the same cast and crew, notably co-stars Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson as young game-players Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark and supporting players Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Sutherland and Stanley Tucci as some of the various adults, meanies and hungry gamesters  swirling around them. Like that movie, this one is built around an action-adventure show that’s also a political allegory and a coming-of-age fable, in which the so-called “Hunger Game” (a mass media event which combines the knock-‘em-off plot of “And Then There were None” with the trappings of The Super Bowl), functions as  a social pressure valve to pacify the masses in an Orwellian dictatorship of the future. And,  and in this “Nineteen Eighty-Four” variation, the downtrodden masses are kept in their social slots by a set of media games and deadly sports, in which chosen members of the underclass (including Katniss, our heroine)  battle it out to the last man or woman standing, providing bloody TV diversion and satisfying the rest of the underclass.

In the last movie, Katniss, the representative of impoverished District 12,  in the 74th annual games, won the final battle and then spared the other last survivor Peeta, because they were supposedly in love — to the discomfiture of Kat’s longtime friend Dale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth).  Now she‘s back and so is Peeta, and so are a flock of other past champions, all of whom have been recruited for the 75th games, rejiggered by President Snow (Donald Sutherland at his most unctuous and nastily narcissistic and Sutherlandian) and gamesman/planner Plutarch Heavensbee (the sadly late Phillip Seymour Hoffman) to become an all-star champions-of-champions combat. The obvious intention is to prevent Kat or her fellow champs from lending any popularity or credence to the brewing revolution, just about to break.

Catching Fire is a long movie with dozens of characters, and it takes its own sweet time getting to the 75th Games. But when it does, it roars and explodes and erupts in what seems to be a CGI-laden science fiction jungle-forest, in a manner that suggests the Cooper-Schoedsack ”Most Dangerous Game” filtered through half a century of science fiction epics and video games. There’s not that much suspense, of course, where Kat is concerned. We know (or some of us know) that there are two more sequels coming, both of whom need their heroine. But we can muster some concern about the others contestants.

The cast is headed by newly anointed Oscar winner Lawrence (that’s Jennifer, not Francis, nor Lawrence of Arabia, R.I. P. the Great Peter O’Toole, for that matter), and it’s top-notch. She’s  abetted or thwarted by a classy ensemble that includes her kind of boyfriends Peeta (Hutcherson) and Dale ( Hemsworth), along with Kat’s shaggy mentor-at-arms Haymitch Abernathy (Harrelson, giving it the Full Woody), her hyper fashion maven Effie Trinket (Banks)  plus a roster of fellow game-players that includes non-mad scientist Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) and his companion Wiress (Amanda Plummer), angry punk siren Johanna Mason (Jena Malone) and dashing Finnick O’Dair (Sam Claflin), from whom we will obviously hear more later.

There’s also a fine set of villains or maybe-villains headed by the evil, half-lisping President Snow (Sutherland), and including the smirking games planner Heavensbee (Hoffman, than whom no one smirked better), and a sadistic bastard named Commander Thread (Patrick St. Esprit). And we haven’t gotten to the wickedest and most supportive of supporting players, not-really-a-villain-or-contestant, but one hell of an emcee, the incandescent rouser and ultra-flam showman Caesar Flickerman, as played by Stanley Tucci with no inhibitions and a smile that could devour Liberace.Every beautiful and gifted young actress should have a few years like Jennifer Lawrence just did: and  I’m not trying to rain on any of this parade when I suggest that the big-budget movie of The Hunger Games; Catching Fire  is being a little over-rated, and that the last five or ten minutes are a little abrupt and confusing.

Who could ask for more? Watching Catching Fire,  I wondered all over again why so much effort and care and money is spent on movies primarily geared for children or teenagers compared with the shorter shrift often given so-called adult movies. As long as the Y.A. shows are   as good as this one, and as long as the Adult movies, including this year’s Best Picture Oscar nominees, get the money they need , Ii guess it doesn’t matter.   After all, you can always go out in the lobby and read a book.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon