Now is the autumn of the cinematic patriarch, Jean-Luc Godard. His latest film is called In Praise of Love and it represents something of an angry, impotent protest against American cultural domination, and the vulgarization of a civilization that no longer remembers Jean Renoir, Walter Benjamin or Simone Weil. It's King Lear stuff, with Godard raging on the blasted heath of a world that is more in tune with the culture of Jackass, Fear Factor and The Osbournes.
But American culture was hip once, back when jazz, swing and R&B played in French cafés and Jerry Lewis, Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart held forth in the movie palaces along the Champs d'Elysses. Over at Henri Langlois's Cinemateque Francaise, a motley group of filmloving misfits sat and watched American crime movies, day in and day out. The French New Wave was born at these screenings: Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette and of course, Godard.
Breathless was Godard's first feature and it remains, to this day, his only hit. Paul Belmondo plays a Bogart-besotted hoodlum and Jean Seberg (perhaps the Chloe Sevigny of her day) plays a France-besotted American exchange student. There's a thin lovers-on-the-run plot, but the film is really a mash note to American pop culture and the liberating possibilities of an open convertible, a handheld camera and a jump cut. Like Kerouac before him and Dylan after him, Godard blasted open the suffocating restrictions of the medium and created an instant cultural watershed.
Godard is a cranky old geezer these days, but Breathless is a reminder that even he was once young and frisky, drunk with ideas, passion and energy, and full of optimism about the possibilities of American youth culture. Lose your breath again Tuesday, Oct. 29, at Duke's Griffith Auditorium. Showtimes are 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. --David Fellerath