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[Note: this is the sixth film in my 2016 Blind Spot series. For a list of the other well-known or well-respected films I’ve already watched or I’m going to be watching for the first time this year, see this post.]

When Jean-Luc Godard decided to make his feature-length debut Breathless in 1960, he famously turned to two of his fellow Cahiers du Cinéma colleagues for help. François Truffaut had already made one successful film – The 400 Blows – a year earlier, and would write the outline of a story for Godard that was based on a real life murder: in November 1952 Michel Portail, a Parisian dating an American journalist named Beverly Lynette, stole a car so he could visit his sick mother in Le Havre and shot a motorcycle cop named Grimberg. Claude Chabrol – who had three films of his own under his belt by the end of 1959 – was brought on as an ‘artistic supervisor’. These were two men with their own clearly-defined ideas about cinema, and storytelling, but this film is unmistakably Godard’s, from the way that it embraces a hip, French take on American pulp imagery to the film’s most obvious structural quirks, including the large number of jump cuts that were made when trimming down a five hour rough-cut to the released version of 87 minutes (90 unrated). This skittish, stuttering style would go on to become something of a calling card for Godard in the 1960s, but it’s not only utilised as a means of reducing the running time. It gives a sense of busy, young lives in perpetual (caffeine- and nicotine-fuelled) motion, while it also serves to highlight – through the lack of an expected smoothness – the awkwardness (or indeed the fractious nature) of the relationship between Jean Seberg’s American in Paris Patricia and Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Michel, a man on the lam who seems to care more about adopting the mannerisms of Humphrey Bogart than he does about the net that’s closing in on him.

The chemistry between the two is, of course, key to the film’s success. Seberg’s fee accounted for a hefty portion of the film’s budget and she is as cool as they come, her style in this film – short, cropped hair, striped Breton top, skirt, overcoat – as influential today as it has ever been. Belmondo’s shady crook is a walking chimney, perennially lighting up cigarettes, stubbing them out, flicking matches away with no concern about potential fires and generally not giving much of a fuck about anything other than Bogey. He calls her a louse repeatedly during the film (or ‘a scumbag’, depending on the version you watch), and most famously of all he says it to her during the final scene, when all that smoking catches up with Michel and he finally runs out of breath. Does he mean it as an insult? Is it a playful in-joke that acknowledges that her French isn’t perfect? Or is it just a defence mechanism? I’m inclined to go with the latter suggestion; he really does love her but is afraid of rejection, and anyway…it simply isn’t cool to show commitment. How many times do you ever see Bogart do that, after all? As for Patricia…does she love him? Maybe. Was she really going to go to Italy with him? Maybe. Does she believe he would be a good father? Maybe…weirdly. Both actors deliver very enigmatic performances, and both characters are hard to figure out as a result, as playful and flirtatious with each other as they are distant. Seberg and Belmondo improvised a lot with dialogue that Godard often came up with on the day.

Godard’s adoption of the fledgling cinéma vérité style for Breathless helped to popularise it among cinephiles, despite it being a term more readily associated with documentary filmmaking. Raoul Coutard’s hand-held camera moves freely and loosely around the characters as we experience the minutae of their quotidien life, be it buying newspapers, selling newspapers, lounging around indoors talking about their bodies, eating in cafes and more. Coutard was the choice of producer Georges de Beauregard, and he would become an important collaborator with Godard during the rest of the decade, as well as being an important figure in the careers of Truffaut and others. You can’t underestimate his contribution to the mood of this film, or indeed that of pianist Martial Solal’s insistent jazz soundtrack, which lingers in the memory long after the film has finished. Their importance has often been stated, though one could argue that the two women Godard edited with, Cécile Decugis and Lila Herman, have been overlooked. Both will have been key contributors to the rhythm of Breathless, and that – along with the look and the feel of the film – is everything; by contrast the plot is really so slight as to be almost – almost! – irrelevant. It’s not a surprise that this jittery black-and-white portrait of Paris – and Godard’s infatuated take on the city’s young, chain-smoking inhabitants – caused such a stir in the early ’60s; the director flings the door open here to usher in the new decade. Breathless is an experimental, era-defining masterpiece and it hasn’t lost any of its hipness during the ensuing years.

Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard.
Written by: Jean-Luc Godard. Based on an initial treatment by François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol (uncredited).
Starring: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg.
Cinematography: Raoul Coutard.
Editing: Cécile Decugis, Lila Herman.
Music:
Martial Solal.
Certificate:
PG.
Running Time:
86 minutes.
Year:
1960.

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A point often made with regard to documentaries is that choosing the right subject matter is half the battle. In making a film about the New York-based businesswoman, interior designer and style icon Iris Apfel, the late Albert Maysles certainly chose the subject of his penultimate film wisely, as Iris is a flamboyant, fascinating individual and spending time in her company is an entertaining way of passing an hour or so.

Along with his brother David, Maysles was (or should I say ‘is’, with Iris in cinemas and co-directed final feature In Transit yet to be generally released) one of the leading proponents of direct cinema, a style of documentary filmmaking originating in North American in the late 1950s that concentrates on showing reality through impartial observation, the theory being that you are more likely to learn certain truths about your subject that way. Often employing lightweight, hand-held cameras to record someone’s daily business, Maylses’ documentaries are filmed in a familiar, consistent fashion, whether the subjects’ lives are ordinary (as per the classic Salesman, in which the lives of four door-to-door bible sellers are examined) or extraordinary (for example the brilliant Gimme Shelter, which follows the Rolling Stones on the US tour that ended with the notorious Altamont show).

Few would describe Iris (or her life) as ordinary: her style is both eye-catching and instantly recognisable – big glasses, brightly-coloured fabrics, lots of accessories, occasionally clashing patterns, a mix of the expensive and inexpensive – and we see here that she is fêted by many within the fashion industry, whether they be internationally-famous designers or aspiring students. The Park Avenue apartment she shares with droll husband Carl, whose hundredth birthday party makes it into the film, is equally attention-grabbing: it’s filled to the brim with knick-knacks / toys / other ephemera and it is treated as another subject by Maysles, who carefully catalogues the teddy bears and furniture while following Iris around. Yet beyond all the fashion events and lurid possessions what we see is occasionally ordinary: Iris and Carl discussing who owns the last yoghurt in the fridge, for example, or the many shopping trips that Iris takes; she looks far more comfortable browsing stalls in flea markets or haggling in a Harlem clothes shop, for example, than she does when attending meet-n’-greets or other parties within the fashion world.

Maysles’ approach to the rag trade is non-judgmental, though as a responsibility-free viewer it’s easy to form an opinion about what you see (of course it’ll be partly based on your own preconceptions, and thus I found myself mostly intrigued by the rampant air-kissing and false-sounding flattery, as it served to reinforce my own prejudices). There’s no deliberate attempt to make anyone here look fake or dim-witted, but it’s telling to see Iris explain that it takes a lot of time and effort to put her look together only for window dressers miss the point by choosing to focus on her glasses alone when they dress mannequins. Iris manages to bite her lip and, at 93, is probably used to being reduced or summed-up in such a trite way. Anyway, the respect she appears to receive from designers seems far more genuine than the platitudes given by several fashionistas in this documentary, even if it’s impossible to say for certain whether that’s really the truth. It certainly looks that way, though.

In following Iris around for a few weeks (months?) the film is light on background detail, though there are plenty of old photographs of the couple’s trips abroad and even some charming 16mm home movie footage made by Carl. Anyone expecting a thorough examination of this lady’s early life or even the years in which she ran a successful interior design business will be disappointed, although there are some interesting tidbits (the Apfels furnished the White House while the Kennedys lived there, and Carl hints that Jackie was a problem customer, which provides a neat link to Maysles’ most celebrated film, Grey Gardens). Mostly it’s just pleasant reminiscing coupled with carefully-rehearsed advice in soundbite form, much of which serves as a way of re-enforcing the outward projection of a persona. Iris is a warm portrait of a sharp, eccentric New Yorker, but if you pay attention there are plenty of smart observations and a suggestion that constantly playing up to an expected public face is, eventually, utterly exhausting. At just 80 minutes it does, however, feel a little slight.

Directed by: Albert Maysles.
Starring: Iris Apfel, Carl Apfel.
Camera: Albert Maysles, Nelson Walker III, Sean Price Williams, Nick Canfield, Chris Dapkins.
Editing: Paul Lovelace.
Certificate: 12A.
Running Time: 80 minutes.
Year: 2015.

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