Times Square was just lighting up when I stepped out of the screening of Breathless. Under a black-and-white movie sky—a mottled screen of rain clouds, backlit by the last dim afternoon sun—billboards and video displays had sparked up their colors for the night, cars’ headlights were starting to flare down the avenue, and the window glow of delis and storefronts had splashed onto the sidewalks. People were wading and kicking through the light on this still-damp evening as they jockeyed past one another at the intersections, with me among them hurrying on my way past one, two, three newsstands and down into the Fiftieth Street subway station, where a trumpeter on the platform was playing "Nature Boy." He switched to the theme from The Godfather as the train came in, and this made perfect sense. The screening of Breathless had ended—a preview of the restored print, with improved subtitles, that has been prepared to commemorate the film’s fiftieth anniversary—but I felt I was still in a movie, even while chasing around outside.
To me, and I suspect to most cinephiles, this is the rush that makes moviegoing addictive: the sensation that the film’s world was so full that it has spilled into the sights and sounds beyond the theater’s doors. You may judge the power of the drug by the fact that it cannot be copped very often. From Breathless, as everyone surely knows by now, you get a shot of the pure stuff, especially now that the image has been cleaned up and is available again on a real screen.
Once more you can look down on the Champs-Elysées from the vantage point of a rooftop or upper-story window and see the moment when the streetlamps blink on; and this sudden but soft change in the view’s infinitely nuanced grays (which seem so peaceful at this remove) will quiet your heart a little and give you a sensation of being in the midst of something elegant, even if your next twilight experience takes place on Seventh Avenue. The cinematographer for Breathless, Raoul Coutard, contributed to this effect by serving as a consultant for the restoration, which in itself might not guarantee a perfect match between this print and the original (think of the notorious differences between Ansel Adams’s early and late prints) but does ensure that an unmistakable classicism shines through the radicalism of these pictures. When Jean Seberg appears in close-up, you see the freckles on her nose. When there’s a shot of Jean-Paul Belmondo’s hand holding the two coins that are his only constant assets, you see the dirt worked into the fingers. Such evidence of the randomness and grubbiness of ordinary life was still routinely scrubbed out of movies in the era when Breathless came out; but here, it’s present throughout, and in the coolest, chicest form it will ever take.
Which is to say that Breathless (as everyone also knows by now) not only lets you live vicariously through the movies but also winks at you knowingly for wanting to. "Bogie!" exclaims an awed Belmondo when he spots some photographs of the actor displayed outside a movie theater, then pauses to venerate his idol by aping him. Perhaps Breathless hints at a slight condescension toward this commonplace mode of fantasy, which helps speed Belmondo’s character (a self-described "jerk" in the current subtitles) toward his unfortunate end. The cinematic sophisticates from whose circle Breathless emerged wanted an audience that would go beyond identifying with movie stars—an audience that would learn to see itself in relation to genres, production studios, national cinemas and ultimately the worldviews of certain geniuses behind the camera.
This project proved to be open to some degree of self-criticism. Breathless, which bears a Parisian in-joke dedication to the Hollywood B-movie factory Monogram Pictures, is literally about the risks a Frenchman faces when he misappropriates American vehicles (that is, the various Detroit cars that Belmondo steals). And when this particular Frenchman enters into an excitingly troubled relationship with Seberg, an American star cast to represent American innocence abroad? He calls their lovemaking "Franco-American rapprochement"—this, in a film that takes time out to document, and mock, a state visit from Eisenhower to de Gaulle.