Godard on the set with cameraman Raoul Coutard
Godard on the set with actress Jean Seberg
Godard on the set with his cameraman and his actors
Godard and Coutard on the set with actor Jean-Paul Belmondo
Godard on the set with Director Claude Chabrol
BREATHLESS (À Bout de Souffle) B+
France (89 mi) 1959 d: Jean-Luc Godard
Innovative, to be sure, as it’s a breezy tribute to Bogart and American films, particularly film noir, often recreating scenes on the fly blatantly meant to mirror the original source, viewed as an homage to Godard’s cinematic favorites, a reminder that filmmaking can be a joyous undertaking (in contrast to the wretchedly dry obscurantism that passes for Godard films of today), yet what’s particularly striking is the existential point of view, as there’s really no connection to the past or future, so for the duration of the film all that exists is today, becoming the youthful inspiration for the French New Wave movement. With a plotline that could be written on a discarded scrap of an envelope, this story was allegedly inspired by an article viewed in the newspaper about a young outlaw who killed a policeman, then hides out with his girlfriend until she eventually betrays him. Clearly Godard’s heroes reject contemporary society, a feeling the director strongly identifies with, coinciding with a general feeling in the early 60’s that the younger generation was suffocating under the stifling restrictions of an overly repressed 50’s conservatism, ushering in a new era of social consciousness. At the time, there was no agenda to speak of, no platform to support, just a general feeling that a tidal wave of change was coming. As a point of comparison, is this film really as radical as what Cassavetes was doing in Shadows (1959), released 6 months earlier, offering a more pronounced sense of spontaneity, jazz, identity, race, and a newly developing sense of social awareness? What’s different was there was no movement following Cassavetes, who was way ahead of his time, as the independent films in America wouldn’t catch on until the late 60’s and early 70’s, while the French New Wave style erupted like a house on fire following the release of this film, revitalizing the French film industry, with the iconic Parisian film journal Cahiers du Cinéma suggesting in 1962 that the film spawned 120 new first-time French directors between the years 1958 and 1964 according to A History of the French New Wave Cinema by Richard Neupert (UW Press - : A History of the French New Wave Cinema, Richard ...), which is why Godard gets all the recognition for introducing something revolutionary to cinema. To that end, what this film provides is a feeling of spontaneity, improvisation, living in the moment, offering a spirit of liberation, even if that was only a fleeting moment. Freedom in this film is always viewed as personal freedom, refusing to allow restrictions that slow you down, ignoring road signs, for instance, speeding ahead, always moving forward (“Don't use the brakes. Cars are made to go, not to stop!”), personified by kinetic energy, perhaps best expressed by a traveling shot, living by a mantra of doing what you want when you want, without anyone telling you different, living life like there’s no tomorrow, where “being afraid is the worst sin there is.” What this film represents is a rebellious attitude, an expression of its own virile, hyper-masculine style, like Brando in THE WILD ONE (1953), with Jean-Paul Belmondo in the defining performance of his career as Michel playing a petty thief, a street hustler and a con artist, a guy that romances girls, steals cars, robs from unsuspecting suspects at will, be it strangers or pilfering through the purses of his girlfriends, never once expressing an ounce of remorse. Drifting through life at an accelerated pace, what better means of expression is there to utilize than a B-movie format, particularly the black and white film noir style, with all the dark tones and its fatalistic implications, largely defined by action, where the leading figure has seen it all, absolutely nothing phases him, as he has developed survival instincts, a way to cheat death, like playing a game of Russian roulette, until one fateful day when the game is over.
Perhaps best described from James Monaco’s The New Wave, 1974 (page 117), The New Wave: Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette:
action vs. contemplation, the gray city, the ambivalence of women, the ambivalence towards women, lovelessness, the iconography of words, the power of popular culture, the grotesque distortions of capitalism, transience (no one has a home), cafes, the endless talk, the formal mis-en-scène, the syntax of sound vs. image, American culture, the B-movie, the film noir, the chilling romance with death, the difficulty of understanding, the commonness of death, the situation of the outsider, the political act, the importance of the sign, the “significance” (in semiological terms) of the sign, print vs. film, automania (both of the self and automobile), auterism, digressions, the sociological treatise, the pun, Angst, Sartrean nausea.
After a fleeting moment when he’s stopped on a joy ride by a couple of motorcycle cops for speeding and reckless driving in a stolen car, Michel speeds ahead in a desperate attempt to lose them, pulling off at a country roadside detour when the car stalls. One of the cops drives past, as does the other, but he quickly returns down the detour heading straight for Michel, who feels he has little choice but to shoot and kill him, making a run for it afterwards, eventually finding his way back into Paris. Holing up in the apartment of a girlfriend afterwards, he blithely steals money from her purse, an act that is commonplace and routine in his life, before heading out to the Champs-Élysées to meet a girl selling newspapers on the street, Jean Seberg as Patricia, an American love interest that he flirts with and seduces, taking a casual romantic interest in her throughout, whose French language skills are comically amateurish, but part of that may be due to Godard’s own habit of providing a script only on the morning of a shoot, not allowing any rehearsal time, trying to work quickly and economically, literally making the film on the fly, often without permission to shoot on the streets of Paris (requiring a fully submitted script that didn’t exist), which certainly add plenty of documentary authenticity and vibrant character to this film, literally abandoning the idea of a movie studio and instead implementing a guerilla style of cinéma vérité with no sound, no lights, and no crew shooting at actual locations spread throughout Paris, many revealed here, A bout de souffle: footnotes to the film - The Cine-Tourist and here, In search of the locations for Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless | BFI. Part of the beauty of the film is the way it continuously moves around the city of Paris, shot in natural lighting with a handheld camera by Raoul Coutard, a war photo-journalist who was hired based on his ability to shoot rapidly, who would go on to work with Godard on fifteen films, holding his camera still even while moving quickly, resorting to clever methods to hide and disguise the camera so pedestrians were unaware they were being photographed. This, in essence, defined the New Wave philosophy, in direct contrast to studio shoots where everything is planned out ahead of time, allowing freedom of movement by the director who planned where he wanted to shoot the scenes, but gave each an improvisational feel. As for his infamous jump cuts, this was only implemented after the shooting finished in the editing room, on a recommendation by fellow director Jean-Pierre Melville, as the initial edit was too long, offering advice on how to shorten scenes simply by cutting them abruptly without expository explanations, which also quickens the pace of the film. The film is dedicated to Monogram Pictures, makers of cheap American horror and noir movies of the 40’s, a Hollywood B-movie studio that many of the Cahiers du Cinéma critics admired (churning out Charlie Chan and Bela Lugosi pictures) and includes the presence of Melville in the film, a director openly espousing the film noir technique utilized here even as it’s shot in the middle of summer, where a gloomy noir attitude runs throughout the picture. When asked his greatest ambition in life, Melville as a world famous author responds, “To become immortal…and then die.”
Exuding charisma and emulating Bogart, including the infamous wipe of his lips with his thumb, also seen wearing a fedora, Belmondo is the star of the show despite his self-centered narcissism and openly chauvinistic behavior that shows little regard for the opposite sex, making it all about what he wants right now, like his voracious appetite for cigarettes, expecting the girls to simply play along, as if he can easily push them around at will. Essentially about a couple that couldn’t be more different, Patricia, being an American, invites comparisons to French girls, as she stubbornly flaunts her independence, even when falling under his spell, suspicious about where this all may lead, though actually confessing that she “wants to be like Romeo and Juliet” who “couldn’t do without each other.” Her middle class innocence comes with the territory, an American abroad seeking to establish her career as a journalist, with aspirations to be a writer, though still supported by her wealthy father so long as she attends classes at the Sorbonne, becoming something of a fashion statement with her short cropped hair and chic attire, viewed as a pseudo-intellectual reading Faulkner’s 1939 novel Wild Palms, discussing the book’s final line, “Between grief and nothing, I will take grief.” Michel responds otherwise, suggesting “Grief’s stupid, l’d choose nothing. It’s no better, but grief’s a compromise. l want all or nothing.” This existential abyss is at the heart of the picture, depicting what might be described as “romantic nihilism,” where the couple is basically borrowing time before the inevitable occurs. To viewers, what’s missing is not what happens, but how it happens. They spend an inordinate amount of time onscreen confined to her cramped bedroom making small talk that amounts to nothing really except his persistent attempts to go to bed with her, repeatedly calling her a coward when she refuses, while she flirtatiously poses in front of a mirrors or compares her profile to a Renoir painting on the wall, mostly shot in close-ups throughout, uttering sweet nothings like “I don’t know if I’m unhappy because I’m not free, or if I’m not free because I’m unhappy.” Rejecting his advances only makes him want her more, like forbidden fruit, where she remains ambivalent all along about what she really wants, finding it hard to decide until she finally relents, where this no man’s zone of sexual provocation and aloof standoffishness is like a moral wasteland, producing a kind of intense neurotic despair. Interestingly she plays records during their pillow talk, most of which Michel has no interest in, exhibiting little interest in highbrow culture, claiming he’s only in the city to recover money owed to him by a friend, as after that he’s off to Rome, inviting Patricia to tag along. He literally makes dozens of phone calls in this film in pursuit of his money, showing that his real interest lies in sex, cars, money, and cigarettes, though he’s also seen constantly scouring the newspapers for the latest update on the police investigation of the murder, eventually posting his picture, also using a photo ticker device of electric newsreel headlines digitally broadcast on designated city buildings suggesting police are on the verge of making an imminent arrest. This kind of running commentary telegraphs what’s about to happen, preventing any notion of suspense, even as Patricia seems to be falling for the guy, more accepting of theft as part of this diversionary lifestyle on the run, suddenly taking an interest in stealing cars. But this moral hiccup can’t last long, as she’s a virtuous girl at heart, just taking a momentary detour along the road.
The French love affair with American culture reflects a postwar mentality, as the same thing happened in Japan and Germany, emulating the cultural characteristics of the victors or occupying force, meant to represent an elusive freedom that apparently exists only in America. Even the cars Belmondo steals are in large part American cars, luxury Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles, and a sharp looking Thunderbird convertible, while also appropriating Bogart mannerisms, an actor known for using his head, chasing the pretty girls, and getting himself out of precarious positions, and there’s even a scene of crowds gathering along the Champs-Élysées cheering for Eisenhower and de Gaulle in a spirit of Franco-American postwar solidarity. But Godard goes further, making visual and aural references to classical musicians: Bach, Brahms, Chopin, Mozart, painters: Renoir, Degas, Picasso, and Klee, writers: Faulkner, Rilke, Cocteau, and Shakespeare, cultural landmarks: the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, and Notre Dame de Paris, and iconic movie directors like Hitchcock, Nicholas Ray, Budd Boetticher, Robert Aldrich, Otto Preminger, and Sam Fuller. Following the success of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups) (1959) which won Best Director at Cannes in 1959, which brought attention to Cahiers filmmakers like Rivette and Rohmer, but also Chabrol’s Les Bonnes Femmes (1960), the film rightly gets credit for spurning an interest in the French New Wave, becoming a box-office sensation, opening not in arthouse theaters but in commercial establishments, reputedly earning 50 times more than the cost of the film, which was something like $48,000 to $90,000, with a quarter of that paying for Jean Seberg’s salary, yet what seems most influential about the film is capturing the existential ennui that characterized the 50’s, perhaps perfectly expressed by Belmondo’s dry commentary after being betrayed by Patricia who becomes a police informant (only after an alarmed citizen played by Godard himself in a Hitchcock style cameo points out the car to police carrying the wanted man whose face is plastered all over the newspapers), who doesn’t run or get angered at her when she tells him, but accepts it all as part of the overall dramatic arc of his life leading to its inevitable conclusion, like it’s all part of the game, “Informers inform, burglars burgle, murderers murder, lovers love.” Following in the footsteps of the Italian neorealists and his Cahiers editor André Bazin, Godard struck a nerve with his preference for re-introducing realism, but in a new format, which included shooting on the streets, in bars and café’s, or dingy apartments, with one memorable shot inside what was the Quick Elysées restaurant with windows from floor to ceiling looking out onto a bustling humanity just outside literally bursting with life, which frames the albeit smaller story taking place inside, literally dwarfed by a sea of humanity. Godard’s personal mantra for shooting the film seemed to be to rely upon the impulses of the moment, where timing is everything, which is why this film holds such an iconic place in the pantheon of film history. As for the film itself, it’s little more than a glorified B-movie, but the influence it’s had on the movie industry is irrefutable. Riding a wave of aesthetic freedom, spontaneity, and personal expression, Godard perfectly captured the instability of the human experience, isolated and cut off from each other, separated by language and boundaries and political differences, it was the height of the Cold War, more distrustful than ever of an impending future that might include nuclear disaster, mirroring society on its own exasperating terms, with people caught up in the existential angst of the times.
A footnote on Jean Seberg, who committed suicide in Paris at the age of 40, hounded relentlessly by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI COINTELPRO program for being a supporter and fundraiser for the Black Panthers in the 1960’s, repeatedly breaking into her home, tapping her phones, keeping her under constant surveillance, and planting false defamatory stories about her in the press that left her emotionally devastated, so distraught that she claimed it induced premature labor, losing a child shortly afterwards, an unspeakable horror from which she never recovered, growing suicidal, dying near the 9-year anniversary of her child’s death, leaving a suicide apology note written in French addressed to that child. She is buried in the Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris.