A few weeks ago I saw a new, ravishing print of "Breathless" at the Motion Picture Academy. Jean Seberg’s gloriously bad French. Belmondo’s boxer’s shuffle. Guns. Cars. Paris. And that fine cameo by the great Jean-Pierre Melville, playing a philosopher named Parvulesco, stepping off a plane to state his deepest wish: “I want to become immortal, and then die.”
I used to think of Breathless as the birth of contemporary cinema. But to be honest about it, if cinema began in 1895 with the brothers Lumière in the basement of the Grand Café, "Breathless" is closer to cinema’s midpoint. There’s almost as much after it, as before. "Breathless," a film that I’ve revisited all my life, again and again, is now 53—older than most of you in this room, older than the president of the United States.
As Jennifer Egan says, “time’s a goon.” And that goon squad has been very busy of late, turning what had been modern into what is now-- Classic. Turning life-and-death arguments into dimly remembered conversations. Did it really matter which we loved more: "Cahiers" or "Positif"; the new wave or the tradition of quality; Lumière or Méliès; Godard or Truffaut? What mattered was the caring. What mattered was the connection between our deepest emotions and the currents of French cinema.
And now, as the nouvelle vague settles into its comfortable middle age; as the Feuillade’s "Fantômas" is about to turn a hundred; as Georges Méliès himself becomes a character in a feature film shot and exhibited in digital 3D-- As we contemplate the reach of French cinema, from the first Lumière projections to the wondrous films we’ll see here this week-- As our personal goon squads close in, with the result that the French films that we’ve seen and the memories of our own lives become impossible to disentangle--
One thing remains clear. The French cinema has, in the wish of Parvulesco, become immortal. But with a difference: because in defiance of the second half of that wish, the French cinema gloriously, stunningly, gorgeously, completely, deliriously, resourcefully, resolutely and absolutely refuses to die. And for that we are wildly grateful. Merci infiniment.
Posted with the permission of Howard Rodman.