This version of my piece on A bout de souffle is the most recent and supercedes any other version elsewhere on the Internet.
With Sergei M. Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) the most celebrated film ever made, and probably the more influential of the two, Jean-Luc Godard’s A bout de souffle—literally, “out of breath”; in the States, irrelevantly called Breathless—helped establish and define, for themselves and others, the nouvelle vague, the ripping movement that stormed French cinema, overthrowing the reigning “Tradition of Quality” and its academic, refined, meticulously crafted objets d’art. The movement denoted freedom: freedom from the constraints of conventional, worked-through and tied-up narrative; freedom of personal expression; the freedom of roving and penetrating inquiry—and formally encompassing all these, a freedom of camera motion scarcely seen since Dziga Vertov took to the streets in the ’20s to record the pulsating synergy of Soviet life.
These young upstarts drew inspiration from Renoir’s lifetime of personal expression, from Hollywood professionalism and (especially in screwball comedies, westerns and noirs) glints of anarchy, and from Rossellini’s use of camera (for instance, in Germany, Year Zero, 1947) as character, even the main character, rather than as mere observer. Theirs was another French Revolution, sweeping out such “royalists” as Autant-Lara and Clément, who at the time were enthroned as arbiters of filmmaking form and taste.
Time doesn’t march; it sprints! Now, nearly fifty years after its arrival, A bout de souffle still astonishes; as in the case of Potemkin, its formal and technical excitement doesn’t wane. Too, the film still exerts a zinging fascination with a theme whose currency hasn’t faded: our dynamic relationship with the movies we watch. How does the interaction between us and film shape and detail us? While freeing us from some of the conventionalism of ordinary life, does it perhaps tie us to another set of conventions derived from films? Are we who we (think we) are? Or is our sense of self so informed by influences from films that who we (think we) are is a distortion we are either dimly aware of or unaware of?
Another related issue is the extent to which films have so conditioned our perception of reality that we sometimes address this perception as though it were reality. We may even lose ourselves in the discrepancy between our perception and reality.
Godard’s A bout de souffle opens with Michel, a young hoodlum, standing on a street in Marseilles. Several times throughout the film he will repeat the gesture he now makes: in the manner of Humphrey Bogart, he rubs a thumb across his lips, announcing—to himself as well as to us—he’s a tough guy. Once his accomplice gives him the all-clear signal, Michel steals a car; but before speeding away, despite her pleas (and her help), he blows off this accomplice, saying, “I’m in a rush.” Michel is on his way to Paris to unload the car and be paid; he needs the money to beat it to Italy with Patricia, the American girl in Paris he loves (or says he loves because that’s what guys say in movies). Driving, he talks out loud to himself; the image cuts back and forth among his mashed-in mug, the tree-lined road the car zips through, and the adjacent countryside. (A camera was inside the car, and two others were strapped to the car, one on the front, one on the side.) The sum is all of a rush; the title of the film, Out of Breath, begins to sink in. We’re not passively watching this film; we feel we’re in it for the ride. Still, we’re caught up short when Michel turns to us to say, “If you don’t like the sea, and you don’t like the mountains, and you don’t like the big city, then”—well, the English subtitle I saw smoothed out the French—“go hang yourself.” Now we, too, have been blown off by this guy. But something subversive has just happened; Michel’s addressing us reverses the roles of film and audience: briefly, we’ve become the movie that Michel is watching and (as adolescents of the day were known to do) is himself talking back at. We’re the show, as Godard slyly makes his point that films and audiences mirror one another, become one another.
Having found a gun in the glove compartment of the stolen vehicle, Michel is not someone anyone else should cross. The cops are after him, and he’s run off the road. An officer approaches; Michel blows him away. This kid is no longer just a car thief. Now he dashes across the countryside in the direction of the City of Lights. With a quick cut he is a backseat hitchhiker—this, the boy who, on the road, had disparaged two girl hitchhikers, refusing to stop for them. But Michel is full of tough-guy talk when it comes to girls. And now he’s a cop killer.
My summary can’t do justice to this marvelous opening movement which brings into play all sorts of ideas. Plainly, Michel’s toughness is an act. But when the “act” is all one has, it can settle in, take over, and determine behavior even in the worst way. Now that he has killed, moreover, there may be no chance for Michel to come across anything new out of which he can fashion or re-fashion a persona. In other words, Michel may be stuck with the image of himself he has taken from movies. Now his whole young life will be a mad dash until he is literally out of breath—shot dead by the police who (we know from movies) must inevitably catch up with him. There is so much here that brilliantly interprets violent adolescent behavior—especially when one extends the textbook for creating one’s persona to include venues of popular culture other than movies.
There is an even more intriguing dimension to the opening which resonates throughout the film. Godard uses the Hollywood gangster film and its conventions to provide a powerful sense of Michel’s crisis of identity. The starting-point is again the boy’s reliance on movies for the personality or self-image he has managed to compose. Let’s face it: Michel is an aimless small-time hoodlum—a punk—who ends up shooting to death a cop for no better reason than he happens to stumble across a gun. Of course, he doesn’t want to be caught and sent to prison; but the situation is absurd, nearly arbitrary, pointing up (for us) how unhelpful to him his reliance on movies may be. This boy has no script. In the old movies James Cagney was never clueless; he had a definite plot to locate, even fix, him in a predictable sequence of events. But the off-the-cuff air of the movie Michel finds himself in more or less casts him adrift; and the “cool” he exhibits resembles not so much Keatsian negative capability as whistling in the dark. In this context, his nonchalance, even his apparent apathy, provides an index of his stress as well as a window on our own negotiations with film influences that may have insinuated themselves into our consciousness even more subtly and perhaps just as unhelpfully.
Godard may be suggesting, “In our brave new world the old ways have blown apart; it’s a whole new movie, so don’t look to the old rules for guidance.” After all, no matter what consolation he derives from identifying with gangster movies, Michel is no gangster. His only connection to that world is a fence; certainly he belongs to no gang. How could he? Possibly anxious over their borrowings from the same movies, such associates might at any minute puncture Michel’s mask, his patchwork of emulation and impersonation; then where would he be? His “cool” would become fodder for their ridicule—a fate adolescents can find worse than death. Michel’s predicament is both comical and grotesque: on the one hand, by so poorly reflecting the image of a gangster that the old films project, Michel is effectively cut off from the genre that has formed and now feeds his posture and attitude; on the other hand, his continual reliance on this genre, besides distorting his view of reality, cuts him off as well from whatever possibilities exist that he might otherwise use to fashion another, more grounded sense of self. In this light, Michel’s situation compares unfavorably with Godard’s own. Godard can make a film, say, A bout de souffle, in order to discover—if you will, create—a sense of who he is that liberates him from the enormous influence of his filmgoing experience even while, bending it to his will, he draws from this experience; but Michel’s “self-expression,” stealing cars, is a poor substitute that in fact cannot help but deepen the rut the boy is in. May not Godard be looking at Michel and saying, “There but for the grace of making films go I”?
Michel’s dream is to flee to Italy. There, of course, he would be an immigrant. This suggests another aspect of the ’30s gangster film: Denied access to the mainstream, a despised immigrant resorts to the underground business of organized crime as a means of moving on up. By contrast, Michel—a disorganized criminal—is headed nowhere, not even to Italy, it turns out. Surviving him will be his girlfriend, Patricia, a visiting American student who will make it to Italy, her Italian surname, Franchini, suggests.
In some ways Patricia is Michel’s mirror-image, someone incompletely formed as yet, in her case, rather than looking to films, looking to the girl in a (Pierre-Auguste) Renoir painting poster for guidance on her own appearance. Godard stresses this mirror imaging of the two main characters by having them on a number of occasions look into one another’s eyes; the two even have a staring contest. Nevertheless, Patricia isn’t nearly so adrift as Michel. For instance, she receives money from home that helps her sustain her existence abroad. Too, she is much more articulate than Michel, whose speech amounts to repetitive schtick—one more index of his juvenile insecurity. But these differences between them help us to understand them both. Because she is more verbal, for example, she can articulate things about them both that Michel can’t (or won’t) articulate about himself. In effect, she speaks for him as well as herself.
Four of her pertinent remarks follow:
1. I want you to love me, but at the same time I don’t want you to. I love my freedom also.
2. I don’t know if I’m unhappy because I’m not free, or if I’m not free because I’m unhappy.
3. It’s sad to fall asleep. [Falling asleep] separates. Even if you’re lying together, when you’re asleep you’re alone.
4. I want to know what’s behind that mask of yours.
Lonely, confused about themselves and others, desperate to know “the truth” about their feelings, the pair are in no sense adults, nor are they on any track that might get them to adulthood, no matter how many geographic moves they make. Right after she remarks about the sadness of separation in sleep, Patricia turns to us, showing the same need for us as Michel has shown. Why us? Because we, the audience, her reality, project her fantasy, her motive, of assuaging loneliness; and the self-reflexivity of the film corresponds in part to this sore selfconsciousness afflicting Patricia and Michel. This, in turn, may reflect some of our own feelings vis-à-vis the “reality” that films generally represent to us—but not this film, not Godard’s, whose distancing devices permit us to see at work a process that other films make us a part of. Moreover, Patricia’s utterances, including the four just quoted, often are pronouncements that sound suspiciously like movie dialogue—again, not a failure in the writing but a means of revealing the influence that movies have had on these two kids. At best this influence is a mixed blessing; for, while the films they watch, or the art they look at, or the pop music they listen to, help them to chart or invent themselves, because directed by a powerful force outside themselves this self-invention, or “self-discovery,” may be a distortion of who they really are. At least, Godard and we worry that this is so.
A bout de souffle projects an aching sense of wanting to know. Godard himself is trying to pierce the masks of his characters to sound out the reality, if any, that lies underneath. Patricia’s remark to Michel, “I want to know what’s behind that mask of yours,” is ironic in three ways: (1) Patricia herself often appears enigmatic; (2) it seemingly takes forever for her to decide that she loves Michel; and (3) standing over his bulleted corpse at the end, she adopts—by absorption? assimilation?—Michel’s mask, as her duplication of his Bogart lip-rubbing gesture discloses. Her earlier remark now achieves brilliant clarity; she had also meant, “I want to know what’s behind my mask.” As do we. As does Godard. In terms of his own mask.
Some feel that they know what lies behind Patricia’s front: a little bitch. This misinterpretation is based on two pieces of evidence: firstly, after announcing, “I hate squealers,” rather than accompanying Michel to Italy she turns him into the police, who viciously kill him; secondly, Michel’s own dying words seem to brand her as such. However, it’s a mistake to view Patricia through the convention of the femme fatale when the film as a whole probes and pierces such conventions. The pertinent facts in context follow. One, the girl is confused and quite undone by Michel’s lack of response when she finally declares her love for him. Two, yes, she phones the police, because she’s in as thoughtless a rush to stay in Paris without Michel as, earlier, Michel had been to leave Marseilles without the accomplice who adored him. But she tells Michel that she has done so; it is he who tarries beyond the limit of his own safety, doubtless feeling hurt and betrayed and therefore summoning a full draught of his stupid adolescent bravado. (Make what you will of the fact that Godard himself plays the first soul to alert the police of Michel’s whereabouts.) Three, Patricia is anything but heartless when she runs out after Michel during his final foot-run from the police. Four, throughout the film, as part of his insecure mask, his inveterate “cool,” Michel has casually referred to girls as “bitches”; but his dying word, deguelasse, meaning filthy, vile, is uttered neither angrily nor bitterly but affectionately—a fact that the police (as verbally fixated, rather than visually sensitive, as some filmgoers) fail to relay to Patricia when they translate for her, as little bitch, the slang word that isn’t a part of her rudimentary French vocabulary. Five, yes, yes, the closing shot shows Patricia’s face fully reflecting her feeling that she’s damnable for what she did. So? Her capacity to feel remorse and guilt is proof of her humanity, not proof of a lack of it. Six, neither she nor Michel is an actual human being; they’re characters in a film for gosh sake—and, at that, in a film whose distancing techniques constantly stress the fact. Seven, these characters are, as noted earlier, stamped with a basic likeness, a shared identity that makes them, according to the script, joint executors of Michel’s fate and joint recipients of it. Michel’s finish is Patricia’s finish, too. No wonder the image with which Godard leaves us isn’t a happy face.
Patricia is no more a bitch—whatever that means—than Michel is a wanton thug. Rather, they are both in some critical sense one, making the gap between them—which Patricia’s not comprehending Michel’s dying word encapsulates—an index of their incompletion and self-dissociation. Godard is saying that movies—in general, popular culture—help to create this cognitive and emotional gap while also, in complex fashion, functioning to negotiate and bridge the gap while at the same time, adding to the complexity, widening and deepening the gap. Thus he employs techniques which give form to the dissociation—this “gap.” For instance, his use of unconventional narrative implies its discrepancy with the more conventional plot arrangements of most other films before his and since. There is also the discrepancy between how his characters behave, and why, and the relatively spelled-out ways that characters in conventional films behave. And there is another, electrifying technique that Godard employs (though doesn’t invent) towards the same suggestive end as the others—a technique with which A bout de souffle has become all but synonymous: the jump-cut. Simply stated, the jump-cut is the visual jerk that results when consecutive frames are deleted from the imaging of a continuous action within the same shot and the same scene. Indeed, this technique formally embodies all the ideas I have touched on here, and it operates, also, as a Brechtian distancing device, stressing the film’s analytical bent, by snapping us, the audience, into an analytical mode of attention.
The film’s most moving shot is also its most famous: the traveling shot at his back when, bulleted by the police, Michel stumbles ahead to his end on a Paris street. Here, as elsewhere, Godard is invaluably aided by Raoul Coutard’s fresh, light, unaffected black-and-white cinematography—see, for its antecedents, Vertov’s Kino-Eye (1924) and, greater than even A bout de souffle, The Man with a Movie Camera (1928)—and by Martial Solal’s quick, dramatic music. But the impact of this shot, and of the death scene that follows, derives most of all from the cumulative passion of Godard’s humanistic vision and from young Jean-Paul Belmondo in his stunning, seamless, starmaking role of Michel.
Alas, Jean Seberg! Hounded viciously to her end by J. Edgar Hoover’s F.B.I., Seberg, champion and fund-raiser for the Black Panthers, left us long ago, at age 40. As Patricia, she is terrific; like Dietrich’s Lola Lola in Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930), with each fresh viewing Seberg’s performance mellowingly grows in complexity and ambiguity. This performance of hers has since absorbed her own tragic finish, in no small part because reality, an ironist on this occasion, has seen fit to reverse her and Belmondo’s fates in the film.
François Truffaut, whom we also have lost (to cancer, though, not politics—at age 52), is credited with the film’s script. In fact, Godard himself prepared what script there was from a story idea that his friend culled from a news item. (Truffaut, whose celebrity shot up more quickly because of The 400 Blowslent his name to give Godard’s film a professional leg up.) These two would not remain friends forever. For us, an elusive measure of the poignancy of A bout de souffle derives from the film’s absorption of the non-negotiable fate of a friendship once watched and heard around the world.
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