As first-assistant director to Jean-Luc Godard on the seminal French New Wave film Breathless, Pierre Rissient played a major part in shaping the culture of cinema. Now, 50 years on from the film's original theatrical release, Rissient reflects on the movement that would see in the dawn of a new cinematic era.
LWLies: How did you first become involved with Breathless and Godard?
Rissient: Well, at that time it was a golden age of people in love with the cinema. I was a little bit younger than people like Godard but I fit in and I knew a lot of people through friends and associates or whatever. I was working as apprentice director on Claude Chabrol’s Les Cousins when Philippe de Broca was assistant director and I met Jean-Luc [Godard] through him. We often met in theatres or cafés to discuss work and one day we met on the Champs-Élysées on the corner of Rue de Berri and he said to me ‘Pierre, I would like you to be my first assistant director.’ So that was that. I was very happy.
Was there a sense when you were making the film that this was going to be something special?
Oh absolutely. I was tasked with checking the script and I was on location for the shoot, which was quite a short shoot, and there was definitely a sense that we were working on something that would be respected. We had a quiet confidence. 400 Blows and Les Cousins had already been successful.
This was something of an unknown project though, from an unknown director…
Godard was new but he was certainly not unknown. [Francois] Truffaut and [Eric] Rohmer were better known at the time but we knew everyone, it was a very close group. In many ways it was like a set thing; that we would start this movement. It was very well orchestrated in many ways.
Was the production quite straight forward?
You always have problems but yes, it was definitely smooth going. All the actors were non professional, except for four, [Jean-Paul] Belmondo and Jean Seberg included. But it was a good shoot – we had all the locations set and no major setbacks really.
What was Godard like to work with?
I had a lot of respect for him. He really worked meticulously and knew exactly how to get the best out of the actors and camera. I was quite young at the time so it was easy for me to pick up things. I certainly learned a lot from working on the film.
How do you look back on the New Wave movement now?
It is strange because it happened quite quickly, but it didn’t last as long as perhaps it might have. He group grew apart and people went their separate ways, which is natural. It was a normal group but a very close group at the start with everyone working for the same cause. Nothing lasts but you can’t have regrets or think of how it might have been. I was happy to work at this time, it was a great time to be in cinema.
There were older people hanging around and people’s outlooks started to change. It was not as easy to go out and make films when so many reputations preceded what we were doing.
Why do you think the New Wave became so iconic?
It was iconic all over the world. That is a rare thing and it was apparent at the time that we were making an impact. But it was a time when change was needed, and we offered that in a way. Also, people were returning to the theatre more and the industry was growing considerably. It moved very fast and we were just there at the right time keeping up.
Do you feel you’re career suffered as a result of the success of the likes of Godard and Truffaut?
No, not at all. I was very happy because I was young, just 22 – certainly very young to be a first assistant, maybe the youngest in France. But my situation changed. I spent a year in the military doing national service. Do you have this in England still?
Well, it changed my career. I came out after a year and the people I knew had moved on and it was a different time
Do you regret having to do that service?
I was lucky to do it the way I did. And I was very proud to be in the military. But I have stayed the same as I was before I went into the military. I have always kept a youthful heart and I hope that now this is what keeps me in touch.
Has your relationship with cinema changed?
Of course, but the whole of cinema has changed so much, so it’s nice to be in a position where no one has any expectations of me. I enjoy consuming cinema as much as being a part of it.
Breathless: 50th Anniversary Edition is out now courtesy of Optimum Releasing and is released on DVD/Blu-ray September 13.