Breathless (À bout de souffle)
Produced by Les Productions Georges de Beauregard
Written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard
Distributed by Rialto Pictures
This past May, French director Jean-Luc Godard’s first feature film, Breathless (À bout de souffle), was rereleased in a new print on its 50th anniversary. It was briefly screened in various American cities before its release on DVD. In New York it played at the Film Forum, a theater in lower Manhattan dedicated to screening revivals and independent films, where, as it happens, I first saw it in 1975. Quelle nostalgie!
In 1960, Breathless won a modest reception in Europe and the United States. By 1975, however, it had become so armored with critical and scholarly adulation that its place in the cinematic pantheon had become unshakable. It was hailed as the breakthrough movie of the second half of the 20th century, a latter-day Citizen Kane, a rewriting of the very grammar of film. Why had this happened? For two reasons, I believe. First, it became widely known that Godard had been an enthusiastically prolific, if factually unreliable, film critic before becoming a director. This surely endeared him to those who scribble about film, and they, of course, are in charge of shaping the public’s cinematic understanding. Second, by the later 1960’s Godard had brazenly committed himself to the right side of history, making films that celebrated first the Marxist-Leninist line and later revolutionary Maoism, productions whose sincerity was made evident by their narcoleptic didacticism. Ignoring the tedium, many film scribblers wrote whatever was necessary to ensure history’s and Godard’s approval. So by the time I took my seat at the Forum, I was fully convinced I was about to behold a revolution in film. Soon after the lights went down, however, doubts began to rise in my mind. What unreeled before my expectant eyes was a blanched, roughly connected series of events in which affectless, seemingly motiveless performers went through the motions of a poorly edited grade-B gangster film.
Afterward, I reflected that I must have missed something, that what I had taken to be the film’s deficiencies were not Godard’s shortcomings but somehow my own. Hadn’t the best critics panted in adoration of Breathless? So I read more on Godard’s film. I discovered that what I had thought deficiencies were really marks of genius. Did the film’s scenes seem to stutter as though the projector’s sprocket wheel had lost a few of its teeth? Well, of course. These apparent lacunae were deliberate, the result of the Godardian innovation called the jump cut. When he discovered his movie was too long, he expeditiously solved his problem by randomly slicing a few seconds or more from most of his individual shots, making the released movie seem as though it was suffering from a protracted case of visual hiccups. How interesting, I thought. Godard had succeeded in reducing the film’s running time of well over two hours to 90 minutes—quite an achievement, even if the resulting hour and a half seemed more like three. More important, Godard had turned necessity into a stylistic opportunity. His sliced-and-diced film broke with traditional methods of montage and thereby called attention to its own artificiality. You see, the very best critics are uniformly agreed that true art cannot be achieved unless the artist calls attention to the medium in which he is working. It’s essential that everyone recognize the, well, artifice of the artist’s enterprise. René Magritte had provided the classic instance with his 1929 painting of a pipe entitled The Treachery of Images, under which he helpfully included the legend “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”). Very clever, very Gallic! And entertaining? Please. True artists such as Duchamp and Godard can’t be bothered with pleasing their audiences. Do you suppose their works are mere commodities created for the amusement of the bourgeoisie? Quelle horreur!
But wait, what about the noir? Godard had opened his film with a dedication to Monogram Films, the American studio that specialized in cheap B-movies such as the popular Charlie Chan features and other detective stories often classified under the label French critics had coined: film noir. With an amoral protagonist, a police chase, and a treacherous heroine, Breathless certainly seems thematically noir, but its lighting hasn’t the high-contrast chiaroscuro thought essential to the genre. Most of its scenes take place during the day under a uniform light-gray wash of overexposed film stock that makes Paris and its citizens seem as faded as figures in a photograph left too long in the sun. This again, I learned, reveals Godard’s genius. Not having enough money to shoot with high-contrast film under klieg lights, he made do with available light and thus underscored one of the film’s themes: Inhabitants of the anomie-infected modern world lead aimless, uninflected lives in which everything fades indistinguishably into everything else. Comment existentielle!
Once schooled in the film’s formal properties, I was ready to reconsider the story line. It opens with a young idiot named Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo), who casually steals a car off a Marseilles street and speeds wildly away. Naturally, he attracts the motorcycle police, who give chase. When cornered, Michel shoots one of the cops with a gun he has found in the car. All this happens so quickly and so by-the-way that the killing seems gratuitous, almost inconsequential. Michel then returns to Paris, where he takes up with his sometime American girlfriend, Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg), who doesn’t seem much interested in him or his plans to relocate to Rome. This is a trifle odd, since she thinks she might be pregnant with his baby. But this is Paris, and they are young and unconcerned with mere bourgeois conventionalities. Then again, she might not be pregnant, and besides, there is another and more presentable beau in her picture, a reporter who just might get her a job at his paper, which would sure beat her current career hawking copies of the New York Herald Tribune in English up and down the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. (Note the telling commentary on American culture invading France. Comment imperialiste!) After a prolonged scene in Patricia’s apartment, in which the two desultory lovers alternately bicker and theorize about love and art and may or may not make love—one can’t quite tell with those existential jump cuts—Patricia suddenly consents to run away with Michel. Her decision seems either halfhearted or whimsical, but we can’t tell, since Seberg has evidently been directed to keep her bland face as expressionless as possible. In any event, her stated intention is short-lived. She soon betrays Michel to the police, who come and shoot him as he makes a belated attempt to escape. Comment fataliste, l’absurdité! No wonder Jean-Paul Sartre endorsed this film.
The film’s defenders left me unconvinced, however. There must be something else, I reasoned. Perhaps it was the bits of business Godard had inserted into the narrative. Michel’s obsession with Humphrey Bogart, for instance. In an early scene, Michel stands outside a movie theater reverentially whispering “Bogie” to a poster of the actor. In a clear imitation of Bogart’s signature tic, Michel rubs his bottom lip with his thumb, a studied gesture that recurs several times in the film, most dramatically as he dies in the street. So, I reasoned, the film must be about how people are shaped, even deformed, by popular culture. Interesting, perhaps, but since Michel never discusses Bogart in this otherwise extravagantly talky film, there is no way to know.
And then there is the film’s endlessly discussed conclusion: Michel’s enigmatic last words and Patricia’s reaction to them. As he lies in the street, mortally wounded by a bullet a fascist cop shot cowardly into his back, he looks up at Patricia and, defying all known film convention, makes three faces: first, an open-mouthed grimace; then an unnaturally wide and tight smile; and, finally, a plaintive moue. Since Michel has made these faces earlier, we know they must mean something. Given Godard’s slavish devotion to Marxist-Leninist-Maoist politics, perhaps the expressions betoken that life in the capitalist West reduces itself to a series of sickly hand-me-down performances foisted upon individuals by the institutional marketing arm of a mass commercial culture so unlike those healthy mass expressions arising spontaneously from folks living in, say, communist China.
The sickness of Western life seems confirmed by Michel’s very last words: “Makes me want to puke.”
Hearing this, Patricia asks, “What did he say?”
A policeman perversely replies, “He said you make him want to puke.”
To which she responds with another question: “What’s that mean, puke?” Although Michel pointedly does not blame her, she is nevertheless held accountable. Why? The answer is obvious: The poor girl is an uncomprehending puppet of capitalist America.
The screen then fills with an extreme close-up of Patricia’s opaque face. She seems to look at us for a moment and then makes an abrupt about-face, as though she were trying to evade our accusing eyes, and the screen turns black.
This willfully enigmatic conclusion also has its theoretical justification among Godard’s acolytes. One admirer called it an instance of “his always interesting misogyny,” evidently a minor foible if you’re on the right side of history. It’s certainly not to be urged against Godard, just as polite critics do not bring up his early allegiance to revolutionary Maoism and its cult of violence.
Having viewed Breathless again to write this article, I can say that my original untutored impression of it was correct. The film is a tedious exercise in tendentious politics done in an arch-postmodern style. It is devoid of suspense, humor, and moral consequence. It is, on the other hand, unquestionably the work of a knowing man—knowing in that cheap way with which the self-regarding convince themselves of their superiority. Like so many cultural commissars before him, Godard, the great liberator of the common people, seems always to have been intent on preparing a place of privilege for himself in the coming new age. C’est amusant!
By the way, the film’s title is a mistranslation. À bout de souffle doesn’t mean “breathless” but, rather, the “end of breath” or, more colloquially, “the last gasp.” It seems Godard’s first film was his last gasp as a potentially genuine artist, taken just before he fully embraced a noxiously suffocating politics.