Jean-Luc Godard, the New Wave doyen whose movies are distributed today in every theater where Milk Duds and Mike and Ike are not, learned to make films the way some people learn to paint: by studying the masterworks on someone else's wall and trying to replicate them in the light of his own studio. For Godard, though, a number of the most inspiring models came not from the Old World but from mainstream filmmakers across the pond. "The Americans, who are much more stupid when it comes to analysis, instinctively bring off very complex scripts," Godard observed in 1962. "The Americans are real and natural. But this attitude means something over there. We in France must find something that means something—find the French attitude as they have found the American attitude."
Some version of that injunction lies behind Breathless, Godard's first feature film, which came out 50 years ago this spring and, with François Truffaut's The 400 Blows, carried the New Wave to the fore of European filmmaking. The movie's unmoored, fast-paced style was striking on its release, and it's equally seductive now. But is it French? Godard created Breathless in the mold of Hollywood: The movie's plot, characters, and goals hew closely to American genre pictures of the 1930s and '40s. Since the film's release, it has been cast both as an homage to this (even then) anachronistic U.S. style and as the expression of a new, uniquely Continental voice. It's both, of course. Breathless is an orchestrated dialogue between two worlds—a world of stylized Hollywood romanticism and the everyday world of banal, uncinematic life. It's Godard's careful counterpoint between these two styles that helped him tease out a "French attitude" and gave the movie its relentless drive.
That drive is more vivid than ever in the new, restored version of Breathlessnow screening in honor of the movie's 50th anniversary. The fresh prints, cleaned up with the guidance of Raoul Coutard, the film's cinematographer, are crystal-clear and filled with light, and they open a new world of visual detail: When Coutard's camera moves in close to frame Jean Seberg's face in one iconic shot, we see a matte of mimelike makeup on her skin—a stripping of cinematic illusion that, in Godard's hands, was almost certainly deliberate. In Breathless,every leading character—even the city of Paris itself—tries to reach past the grind of normal life to claim a new, exotic role.
The movie opens as Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a petty thief who idolizes Humphrey Bogart, steals an American car in Marseilles, and commits a traffic violation driving back to Paris. When he's flagged down by a pair of motorcycle cops, he kills one with a gun he found in the glove compartment. Back in the capital, Michel tracks down two young women of his acquaintance, hoping they can hook him up with cash (or just hook up). His favorite free-love inamorata is Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg), a sprightly New Yorker who sells Herald Tribune newspapers on the Champs-Élysées. She wants to be a writer. She also thinks she's carrying his child. As Michel goes about his business, bouncing around town stealing cars and cash and trying to track down shady friends who owe him dough, the net tightens around him. In the final minutes of the film, Patricia sells him out to the police to prove she's not in love. Instead of running, though, Michel stays with her, waiting to be caught—a perverted version of the Romeo-and-Juliet story she cherishes. He dies. She lives. The movie ends.
This brand of brisk black comedy today seems quintessentially Godardian, but Breathless was, in plot and sensibility, a takeoff on Old Hollywood fare. Like most New Wave directors, Godard started as a critic at Cahiers du Cinéma, a journal founded on the idea that mainstream movies should be seen as modern art. The magazine's passions ran toward the studio-system masters (Cukor, Hawks, Hitchcock), due partly to a trade agreement that sent U.S. wartime movies flooding into Paris theaters just as the Cahiers generation came of age. These young critics united against the dominant style Gallic moviemaking: a big-budget, moralistic, and heavy-handed form. Godard particularly championed genre films from Hollywood—Westerns and B-grade noir were his critical specialties. Breathless, which he started in a rush of envy when his friend Truffaut won big at Cannes, was his idea of a fast-paced gangster flick transplanted to the Paris streets.
The movie is upfront about its Hollywood debts. Not only is its subject, literally, a French-American love affair (set during President Eisenhower's visit to Paris to see de Gaulle, no less), the action that propels its plotline is imported from another geographic space. Breathless aspires to be a car-culture film in the style of The Big Sleep or In a Lonely Place: Godard's camera trolls through postwar Paris the way Howard Hawks and Nicholas Ray dragged their antiheroes across noir-era Los Angeles. The iconic shot of Breathless is the tracking shot, the better to accentuate the sweep and scale of Paris' urban arteries.
Despite these Tinseltown trappings, though, it's hard to suspend disbelief enough to lose yourself in Breathless' vision of a Paris measured out in gas miles. It feels false, and that falseness is the linchpin of the movie's style. Michel's Bogie affectations are supposed to be absurd. He speeds down the highway playing cops-and-robbers with a gun but ends up stuck behind a station wagon and roadwork. The film's best physical-comedy moment is wannabe noir: Monsieur Tolmatchoff, a gangster, is tracked down and hustled by some cops hot on Michel's trail. In a Hawks film, this encounter would be tense and portentous, a meet-up at the counter of a femme-fatale-infested dive bar. In Breathless, the setting is a well-lit travel agency, the cops are guileless and overfed, and Tolmatchoff starts the scene leaning Continentally against the counter, smiling with effete disdain, and toying with a small airplane. What's daring and charismatic in the subtropics of Florida or L.A. becomes, in the bright light of Paris' boulevards, a little silly.
This hue of absurdity, like most of Breathless' qualities, developed largely in production. "[O]ne never does exactly what one intended. Sometimes one even does the opposite," Godard once explained. "I realized that [Breathless] was not at all what I thought. I thought I had made a realistic film like Richard Quine's Pushover, but it wasn't that at all." The noir realism he'd sought turned disingenuous because he "didn't have enough technical skill," he claimed—an admission that both gives a window onto Godard's sense of the craft (few besides the Cahiers critics would argue it took a virtuoso to pull off a gangster flick) and shows how Breathless' limits turned into its strengths. Where the noir of Quine and Hawks took scripted, processed cinematic fiction and imbued it with real human stakes, Godard took footage with the spontaneity, rhythms, and anonymity of banal life and braided it on-screen with stylized cinematic fiction. Breathless was filmed with light equipment and a small crew, and Godard designed each scene the day of the shoot from notes he'd made. The result was new and striking not so much for its documentary flavor—the vérité approach was amply fleshed out by the time Godard began—but for its dissonance: the conflict between what Breathless purported to be (an exotic Sin City flick) and what it delivered (scenes from commonplace Paris).
That dissonance sharpened the movie's tone. Although Breathless presented itself as a high-strung gangster picture (the French title, À Bout de Souffle, has more the sense of "out of breath" than the romantic "breathless"), the middle of the film finds Patricia and Michel padding around her apartment for minutes on end, washing up, teasing, chatting about music, and doing nothing in the way that only young lovers can on a lazy morning. It is startlingly real. The camera shifts and wobbles as the two orbit her tiny room; cigarette ash drops—spontaneously—onto the bed, the floor, his chest. Then there's a cut, and we're back to a still, composed frame of the two lovers kissing in sunglasses, a perfect Pop rendition of silver-screen artifice. Against the scenes of the young couple chatting and dressing, it's clear how unreal and stylized that shot is. (The movie's soundtrack likewise moves abruptly from a lush, romantic score and programmatic jazz, on one hand, to unadorned Paris street noise on the other.)
In flipping between these styles—one ragged, unplotted, and pedestrian; the other glamorous and reeking of the storyboard—Godard was not trying to pick a fight with Hollywood's mien or to lampoon audience expectation. (That came later.) He was trying to make a film that, at each turn, broke with his culture's notion of what French movies were supposed to be. Where the dominant screen style had moral overtones, Breathless is breezily amoral, at least until its final moments. And where most postwar showpieces were realized largely in the scripting, Godard's plot, tension, and themes are wrought entirely with the camera and the cutting blade. For all the movie's stylistic nods to noir, in fact, its crucial moments are deliberately generic. Nearly every major scene of Breathless is shot from behind, a vantage from which the movie's poseur heroes become anonymous motorists and pedestrians; the focus of these shots is not their distinctive expressions but the totally routine street life they're facing. In the final moment of the film, Patricia makes a 180-degree turn to show the lens the back of her head—receding, as the movie has, into the texture of the modern Paris street.
By the time Michel and his gangster affectations die at an impassive intersection, it's clear that Godard isn't trying to fill the Hollywood mold. He's trying to break it. Breathless'portrait of the normal flow of Paris life sticks with you long after the credits roll: Patricia and Michel beating a path down the boulevard, doing nothing half-dressed in her apartment, dipping into cafes for a cup of coffee and then dashing out before it's drunk. Compared with the low-key realism of these scenes, the movie's gangster gambit comes across as tedious and heavy-handed. What lay beyond, and lies there still, is the image of a new Paris: sexy, raw, and, for the young and restless, filled with light.
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“To make a film all you need is a girl and a gun.” Jean-Luc Godard’s oft-quoted line might have come from the mouth of any tough-talking, American movie director from Hollywood’s classic era. The fact that it was spoken by a 29-year-old Franco-Swiss intellectual from Paris says much about the cross-cultural pollination that was so crucial to birth of the New Wave and to what is often considered its flagship film: À bout de souffle. Indeed the film’s simple story resembles a classic American film noir, such as those made by Monogram Studios, to whom the film is dedicated. But Godard approached the story in ways that departed radically from past genre archetypes. His years as a critic, his immersion in both high and low culture, his philosophical explorations, all impacted on his debut feature film. As he said in an interview, the film was the result of “a decade’s worth of making movies in my head.” The fact that he was relatively inexperienced and had little knowledge of the practical aspects of filmmaking proved unimportant. What he did have were an accumulation of original ideas, which he applied fearlessly to the aesthetic and technical elements of the film. The results were nothing less than a cinematic revolution.
It was Francois Truffaut who, several years earlier, first sketched out the outline for what would become À bout de souffle. He had been inspired by a true story that had fascinated tabloid France in 1952, when a man named Michel Portail, a petty criminal who had stolen a car, shot a motorcycle policeman who pulled him over, and then hid out for almost two weeks until he was found in a canoe docked in the centre of Paris. One aspect of the story that had appealed to Truffaut was the fact that Portail had an American journalist girlfriend who he had tried to convince to run away with him. Instead she turned him into the police. Truffaut had collaborated with both Claude Chabrol and Godard on the story but had failed to interest any producers. By 1959, Godard, now desperate to catch up with his Cahiers colleagues and make a first feature film, asked if he might revive the project. Truffaut, buoyant with success after the ecstatic reception of Les Quatre cents coups at Cannes, not only agreed, but also helped to convince Georges de Beauregard to produce the film.
With a low budget of 510,000 francs (a third of the average cost of a French film at that time), Godard set about casting for the film. He suggested to Beauregard that they hire Jean Seberg, the young actress who had made an uncertain start in pictures on Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan and Bonjour Tristesse, as the American woman. Although most critics had disparaged both films, Godard had written admiringly about Seberg in the pages of Cahiers du cinema. Unimpressed by the director at their first meeting, describing him as “an incredibly introverted, messy-looking young man with glasses, who didn’t look her in the eye when she talked,” she was, nevertheless, encouraged by her husband, a French attorney with directing ambitions of his own, to accept the role. Persuading Columbia Studios to lend her out for the film was less easy, but again her husband stepped in and managed to convince the studio to accept a small cash payment for her participation. As for Jean-Paul Belmondo, Godard had already promised him the lead role in his first film. Belmondo, who was beginning to get lucrative offers from the mainstream film industry, ignored the warning words of his agent who told him, “you’re making the biggest mistake of your life,” and accepted the part.
With his cast in place, Godard set about knocking Truffaut’s story outline into a screenplay. His original plan had been to use the outline as it was and merely add dialogue to it. Instead he rewrote the entire story, shifting the emphasis away from Truffaut’s portrayal of an anguished young man who turns to crime out of despair, to that of a young hoodlum with an existential indifference to common morality and the rule of law. Crucially, in the new version, the American woman Patricia comes into the narrative near the beginning and their love story dominates the film.
Filming took place over the summer of 1959. Behind the camera was Raoul Coutard, originally a documentary cameraman for the French army’s information service in Indochina during the war. Coutard’s background suited Godard who wanted the film to be shot, as much as possible, like a documentary, with a handheld camera and the minimum of lighting. This decision was taken for both aesthetic reasons – making the film look like a newsreel – and practical reasons – saving the time setting up lights and tripod. Flexibility was very important to Godard, who wanted the freedom to improvise and shoot whenever and wherever he wanted without too many technical constraints. He and Coutard devised ways – such as using a wheelchair for tracking shots and shooting with specialist lowlight filmstock for nighttime scenes – to make this possible. Godard’s method of directing A bout de souffle was even more radical than his technical innovations. Much to the producer Beauregard’s disapproval, he often only filmed for a couple of hours a day. Sometimes, when lacking the necessary inspiration, he would cancel the day’s filming altogether. Early on in the shoot, he discarded the screenplay he had written and decided to write the dialogue day by day as the production went along. The actors found this procedure strange and sometimes forgot their lines, however, since the soundtrack was to be post-synchronized later, when the actor’s were lost for words, Godard would call out their lines to them from behind the camera. For Godard the act of making a film was as much a part of its meaning as its content and style. Like “action painting” he felt a film reflected the conditions under which it was made, and that a director’s technique was the method by which a film could be made personal.
Godard’s unorthodox methods continued in the editing suite. His first cut of À bout de souffle was two-and-a-half hours long but Beauregard had required he deliver a ninety-minute film. Rather than cutting out whole scenes, he decided to cut within scenes, even within shots. This use of deliberate jump cuts was unheard of in professional filmmaking where edits were designed to be as seamless as possible. He also cut between shots from intentionally disorienting angles that broke all the traditional rules of continuity. By deliberately appearing amateurish Godard drew attention to the conventions of classic cinema, revealing them for what they were, merely conventions.
It wasn’t only in the montage of images that Godard expressed his personality, but also through the rich depth of references to cinema, literature, and art. À bout de souffle abounds with quotations of movies by directors such as Samuel Fuller, Joseph H. Lewis, Otto Preminger and any number of classic film noirs. There are also quotations and references to writers such as Faulkner, Dylan Thomas, and Louis Aragon, as well as painters like Picasso, Renoir and Klee. Reflecting the film’s cultural heritage, American iconography and influence is everywhere: in the cars (Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles), Michel’s obsession with Humphrey Bogart, and the jaunty, improvised jazz score (played by French pianist Martial Solal). Godard also included his friends in the film. He asked Jean-Pierre Melville to play the celebrated novelist who Patricia interviews at Orly Airport (the other journalists were all played by friends such as André S. Labarthe and Jean Douchet), and Jacques Rivette had a cameo role as a man run over in the street. Godard himself played the informer who recognizes Michel in the street and turns him in.
On a deeper level, Godard used the film’s framework to explore some of the themes which preoccupied him, and which he would continue to explore for years to come. Some of the key ideas of existentialism, such as stressing the individual’s importance over society’s rules and the evident absurdity of life, lie at the core of the narrative. Death is an everyday event and generally treated with indifference. The impossibility of love, another central Godardian theme, is played out in the relationship between Michel and Patricia. In the long hotel room scene, which takes up nearly a third of the screen time, the two lovers talk, joke, argue and fool about, but frequently fail to completely understand each other. Michel’s use of slang is often lost on Patricia. That she fails to even understand his dying words sums up the flawed nature of their relationship.
Although Godard was the last of his Cahiers du cinema colleagues to make a film – Truffaut, Chabrol, Rohmer and Rivette had all completed or at least shot their debuts before À bout de souffle went into production – it was A bout de souffle that became the cornerstone of the New Wave, and is still the film that defines the movement in the public mind. Sight and Sound magazine called it “the group’s intellectual manifesto” and it, more than any other film of the time, captured the New Wave revolt against traditional cinematic form. It also had a youthful exuberance and a pair of leading actors whose style and attitude seemed to epitomize a new generation of youth. In one fell swoop, Godard had succeeded in making the movement representative of the times, defined cinema as the artform of the moment, and personally become one of its most important figures.
A bout de souffle was an immediate success. In January 1960, just before the film’s release it won the annual Jean Vigo Prize, given to films made with an independent spirit. The critics were unanimous in their praise, recognizing the film as the greatest accomplishment yet to come out of the New Wave. One wrote: “The terms ‘old cinema’ and ‘new cinema’ now have meaning… with À bout de souffle, the generation gap can suddenly be felt.” Celebrated British critic Penelope Gilliat commented that: “Jean-Luc Godard makes a film as though no one had ever made one before.” When it opened in four commercial cinemas in Paris, it immediately drew large crowds. In the end its profits were estimated to be fifty times the original investment. More importantly, it inspired a generation of filmmakers – for whom Godard had become the embodiment of the New Wave and the archetypal cinematic intellectual – to emulate what he had done. Now, 50 years after its release, the film’s impact and its popularity with critics and the public has not diminished. It continues to influence both directors and the wider culture, and every few years a new generation discovers and falls in love with its unique charm all over again.