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À bout de souffle (1960)

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À bout de souffle (Breathless), directed by Jean-Luc Godard, is a hard film to review. On one hand, I love it: it’s fluffy, fun, jazzy, and set in Paris. On the other hand, it’s only so-so: jump cuts distract from the almost nonexistent plot, faux-improvised dialogue adds nothing to the story, and there are many pointless scenes. Yet it’s such an iconic film – and the leads are so charismatic – that even though it is a bit overhyped I have to say that I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Godard is a very polarizing director, his personality aside – I’ve found that most people either love him or hate him. Personally, I have yet to form an opinion. He’s a groundbreaking director, there’s no doubt about that, but he almost oozes pretention. À bout de souffle was his first full length feature film, and it’s obvious (my first Godard film was Pierrot le fou, a much more polished film and one of his best). There are hundreds of unprofessional jump cuts in the film, and yes, I know they’re meant to be artsy, but they really distract from the flow of the film and the viewing experience.

À bout de souffle is the story of car thief Michel (think Grand Theft Auto: Paris) who steals a car and accidentally kills a policeman in the act. He travels back to Paris to meet up with Patricia, an American student he met in Nice, and ask her to go to Italy with him. They spend a lot of time talking as he convinces her to go with him, and afterwards, they are confronted by the police.

Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg.

Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg.

The strength and the enjoyment of the film lies with the two leads, Jean-Paul Belmondo (whose abs also play a supporting role) and the American Jean Seberg. While it takes a while to warm up to Belmondo’s Bogart-obsessed, misogynistic Michel, there’s no doubt that Belmondo’s presence keeps the viewers engaged in Michel’s story. And then there’s Seberg as Patricia. She’s dazzling, charming, and cute. I wanted to be Seberg as I watched À bout de souffle. Everything about her was effortless and cool – her hair, her striped ensembles, her voice…really, I could go on and on. It isn’t hard to see why Michel is so captivated by her and why he almost literally orbits around her.

At times, À bout de souffle is ironic and paradoxical. It’s almost overtly sexist with Michel’s treatment of women, yet Patricia is undoubtedly a modern women. She works, lives on her own, seeks out an education,  sleeps with other men, and speaks her mind. She’s a free women on the edge of second-wave feminism. I’m not sure if Patricia’s freedom (and her ability to make her own choices, despite Michel’s wishes) was purposely juxtaposed with Michel’s sexism, but it does add an interesting element to the film.

The soundtrack by Martial Solal is also worth noting. It’s airy and jazzy and really adds to the ambiance of the film. I’ve heard that some people have watched À bout de souffle solely for that soundtrack, and I can see why. It practically embodies the French New Wave and the free, youthful style of 1960s cinema.

À bout de souffle is simply a film that every film lover needs to watch. It’s significant, it’s iconic, it kicked off the French New Wave. Seberg and Belmondo sizzle against the Parisian backdrop. It has one of the best soundtracks of any film I’ve ever seen. It’s not The Best Film Ever. Hell, it’s not even Godard’s best film. But it’s enjoyable and interesting and worth a watch.

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Star of the Month: Inventing the Abbotts

My mother was right: if the Abbotts didn’t exist, Jacey would have had to invent them. But it seems to me that inventing the Abbotts was something that almost everyone in Haley did, and still do.

Inventing the Abbotts (1997) is a movie steeped in 1950s nostalgia, something that seems common in films from the 1980s and 1990s. It’s a film about a small town boy from “the wrong side of the tracks”, Doug Holt (star of the month Joaquin Phoenix), and his older brother (Billy Crudup) who holds a grudge against the richest family in town, the Abbotts.

Crudup, Tyler, and Phoenix in Inventing the Abbotts.

The Abbotts are the closest thing to royalty in the small Indiana town of Haley, known for their glamorous parties thrown in honor of their three beautiful daughters. Doug is fascinated by the Abbott girls, but his brother, Jacey, is interested in them for a more malicious reason: he believes that their father, Lloyd Abbott, stole a business patent from their own father (who died when they were young), and proceeded to get rich off of it. He executes his revenge by seducing the Abbott daughters, one by one, and jeopardizing the blossoming relationship between Doug and Pamela Abbott (Liv Tyler).

The film centers around Doug and his naivety concerning his brother and the Abbott girls. Joaquin Phoenix does an excellent job of portraying the awkwardness of adolescence and the loss of innocence that Doug goes through. Stepping out of his brother’s shadow is a slow, subtle process that Phoenix masters, especially as Doug begins to fall in love with Pamela. He almost holds her up on a pedestal and can’t believe that one of the elusive, elegant Abbott girls could care for him in return. Knowing the behind-screen relationship unfolding between Phoenix and Tyler adds another dimension to Doug’s feelings: Phoenix once remarked to Jennifer Connelly (who plays Eleanor Abbott) that he could never get a girl like Tyler.

While the film focuses on Phoenix, it would be hard to review this film without taking note of Crudup’s performance as Jacey Holt, Doug’s older brother. Jacey has everything going for him: good looks, brains, and a bright future at the University of Pennsylvania. But he is a ticking time bomb; he’s held in his rage towards both his mother and Lloyd Abbott (the patriarch of the Abbott family) for years, and he’s ready to explode, not caring if he hurts himself and others in the process. Jacey is a character that’s hard to love but difficult to wholly hate, even as he messes up the lives of those around him, because in the end, his whole persona is built on a lie.

Tyler and Phoenix, on and off-screen sweethearts.

Inventing the Abbotts is a slow film, and both the plot and the drama gradually build up to a poignant crescendo as Jacey’s toying with the Abbott girls affects Doug in a way he never expected. It’s billed as a light-hearted romance (it’s not), but to me, the film is a story about growing up and learning to live. It’s a story about how to move on from everything you’ve ever known and how to grow into your own person when you’ve only ever been known as the “little brother.”

The film concludes sweetly, as Doug’s passion is the true to key to his own happiness and the happiness of others. The conclusion to his story is satisfying, if a little saccharine. Doug is an observer and he learns and grows from both his experiences and those of others. Told from his perspective, the film gives us some integral lessons about life and loving someone no matter what they do. In the end, it’s a sweet film; not one of Phoenix’s best, but one that shouldn’t be missed nonetheless.

There’s different kinds of love. Some people you love no matter what, and others you love if the situation is right. To me, the best kind of love is the “no matter what” kind.