Cinema is a visual medium, yet most films—even “art” films—take their structure from theater and the novel. Aside from the seldom-seen work of experimental non-narrative filmmakers, only a handful of directors—among them Jean-Luc Godard and, of course, Peter Greenaway—have claimed the movie screen as the equivalent of the canvas. Now joining their number is Spanish writer-director Carlos Saura, who previously has attempted to capture the essence of opera and dance on screen, with Carmen, Flamenco, and Tango. The latest of Saura’s lessons in Spanish culture, Goya in Bordeaux, is both pictorially ravishing and awkwardly literal-minded. Ironically, this art-filled movie is as much a theater piece as it is a virtual picture gallery.

There’s actually little Bordeaux in Goya, which was shot almost entirely on soundstages. The painter spent his last few years (1824-1828) in France, shunning a repressive Spanish government, but the film uses the older Francisco de Goya (Francisco Rabal) largely as a device to enter the artworks and to recall the artist as a younger man (Jose Coronado). The elderly Goya (82 when he died) lives with a much younger woman, Leocadia (Eulalia Ramón), but his principal confidante is his teenage daughter Rosario (Dafne Fernández). In his memories, Goya is still dashing and his lover is still the lovely Duchess of Alba (Maribel Verdú), who was fatally poisoned after feuding with the queen. (He’s also still able to hear; Goya went deaf at 47—a biographical fact Saura introduces but then downplays when it interferes with his need for expository dialogue.) The dead Duchess walks out of a canvas and becomes the embodiment of mortality, but she’s almost as scary when she’s alive, scratching Goya’s neck and then sensuously (if laughably) licking the blood from her fingers.

“What is this interest in monsters and nightmares?” asks Leocadia, and indeed the facts of the painter’s life as presented here don’t fully explain his most tortured works, which include the The Disasters of War and the brutal “black paintings” he rendered as frescoes. Long before Francis Bacon, another painter recently given an arty biopic treatment, Goya depicted humankind as bruised and bleeding—meaty. The film opens with the artist hoisting a bull’s carcass in his blood-red studio, only to dissolve the image of the dead animal into that of the dying man. It’s an arresting montage, but Saura loses his grip when he sends blood dripping from the mouth of the giant in Saturn Devouring One of His Sons (one of the black paintings) or enlists a Catalan “action theater” group, La Fura dels Baus, to re-enact some of Goya’s war scenes to Roque Baños’ bombastic music.

These aren’t the film’s only attempts to animate artworks that are so vivid they don’t really need animating. In one sequence, both younger and older Goyas walk through a set where enlargements of the artist’s satirical etchings, “Los Caprichos,” are displayed on backlit scrims. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro has helped Saura mount similar pageantry before, and the results are striking. Although the chiaroscuro lighting effects suit the painter’s style, he paints only by candlelight, the older Goya explains, because it makes the colors appear warmer. Yet the sumptuous, stagy tableaux trivialize as much as they dramatize. The sleep of reason produces monsters—as the legend on one of Goya’s most famous etchings warns—and Goya in Bordeaux is only half awake.

Jean-Luc Godard dedicated Breathless, his first feature, to Monogram Pictures, a now-forgotten American maker of B-movies. A few years after he made the film, however, he came to realize that it wasn’t what he intended. “Now I see where it belongs—along with Alice in Wonderland,” he told an interviewer in 1962. “I thought it was Scarface.”

Forty years after the 1959 film was released in the United States, no one would mistake Breathless for Scarface. Godard was profoundly influenced by American tough-guy pictures—and by the first French director to give the genre a Gallic spin, Jean-Pierre Melville, who has a cameo in Breathless—but he couldn’t have made such a movie if (and when) he tried. Although the film’s basic scenario (written by then-colleague François Truffaut) is a simple tale of a gangster on the run, Godard’s treatment of it is hardly simple.

Small-time car thief Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo in his star-making role) panics when he’s pulled over by a policeman and shoots the cop. He then goes on the run, hiding out with the help of his American girlfriend, Patricia (Jean Seberg). The director doesn’t merely treat these protagonists as crime-flick archetypes, however. Seberg’s Patricia is literally a movie character: Godard called her “a continuation of her role in Bonjour Tristesse. I could have taken the last shot of Preminger’s film and started after dissolving to a title, ‘Three Years Later.’” As for Michel, he merely wants to be a movie star: In one famous scene, he emulates a poster of Humphrey Bogart.

Thus, the couple’s brief romance mirrors the love-hate relationship between Hollywood and Paris (or between Hollywood and Godard). Patricia is glamorous and intelligent, and embodies the American view of the world: She’s introduced selling copies of the International Herald-Tribune, the Paris-based newspaper for Americans abroad, on the Champs-Elysées. She is also, however, untrustworthy. Her final act is the first of the many times the U.S. would betray Godard—culminating in the Vietnam War, which the filmmaker took so personally that it drove him into his problematic Maoist period.

In Breathless, however, this ideological battle doesn’t overshadow all else, as it did a decade later. Freewheeling and spontaneous, the movie is the model for most subsequent fiction films made with handheld camera, natural light, and authentic locations—or an ironic conception of the gangster flick. That includes everything from Bonnie and Clyde to the latest products of Denmark’s Dogma-tists. The film’s energy and freedom reflect Godard’s approach to direction: He shot without sound, cuing the lines to his stars, who actually recorded their dialogue afterward. (Contrary to some reports of the director’s extemporaneous style, none of the lines were improvised by the actors.) The major innovation came later, however, after Godard decided the film was too long: He simply deleted frames he found boring, thus inventing the jump cut.

In the age of MTV, such continuity-hopping edits no longer shock, but at the time, the impatient, headlong rhythm was a revelation. Indeed, the movie still looks fresh, more timely than many of its imitators. The 40th-anniversary reissue features a restored print and retranslated subtitles, but the film doesn’t need refurbishing to seem new. Four decades after it was made, Breathless remains a multleveled masterpiece with the punch of a tossed-off B-movie. CP