Breathless (A Bout de Souffle, 1961) writ. and dir. Jean-Luc Godard cine. Raoul Coutard star. Jean-Paul Belmondo (Michel alias Laszlo Kovacs) Jean Seberg (Patricia)
Montage is film narrative, not just an occasional device to compress information or dramatize a deranged sensibility -- this has to be Godard's thinking when he shot Breathless. You think, well maybe he had a lot of dead footage, dull transitions that he just edited out and got lucky with the result. But the action is so circular and ironic in its depiction of cultural hybridizing, you conclude that the filmic technique is as deliberate as is the sociology.
We first see Michel (Belmondo) reading a comic in a Paris street as he idles before stealing an American car. In a series of sequences harnessed by hand-held shots and jump cuts, he is revealed to be a womanizer, a thief, and a murderer. As he carelessly gambols down a typical French country road lined with trees, he finds a gun in the glove compartment, play-shoots his reflection in the rear-view mirror, play-shoots an on-coming vehicle, play-shoots the sun, and then, cornered by a motor-cycle cop, really shoots the law dead.
He's running across a field. Then he's getting out of a car in Paris, is buying a newspaper, is on the phone, is in his apartment, is shaving, is back in the street, is with a sexy girl... who offers him money but he prefers to steal it from her as she sits before a mirror dressing. Boom boom boom boom -- the speed of the narrative is dazzling, just like an action adventure comic.
"The decoupage of comic strips is aesthetically years ahead of film decoupage," says Godard in one of his many interviews. No doubt. Unlike film, comics must move the action by the elimination of transitions frame to frame. Comics do not have the luxury of the real time sequencing implicit in the documentary method of cinematography.
Does this Godard anti-hero suffer from guilt or doubt? Not a bit. Moving with the sociopathic logic of a born criminal and the charm of an existential hipster, Michel continues through time and space as if he is in one of the Bogart movies he so clearly admires. Literally and symbolically he is in love with American culture: American cars, American movies, and American women.
Yet at the same time he is possessed with the familiar fatalism of the incorrigible French Romantic.
He's in love with Patricia (Jean Seberg), the sexy American ingenue who considers herself a writer but has to make ends meet by selling the New York Herald Tribune. The closest to conventional narrative editing Godard comes is in the long courting of Patricia.
Michel is in bed, and Patricia not quite:
Pat: Do you know William Faulkner?
Michel: Someone you slept with?
Pat: No, of course not, silly.
Michel: Then the hell with him. Undress.
Pat: He's a writer. He wrote The Wild Palms.
Michel: Take your sweater off.
Pat: The last line is beautiful.... "Between grief and nothing, I'll take nothing."
Does this sound like nihilism? Freedom is the question... but how? Both Michel and Patricia have their own approaches and, typically, are too self-absorbed to make love work. Both are compromised by the sexual narcissism of youth. Patricia says: "I've watched you for ten minutes and I see nothing, nothing...."
Eventually they do make love, hidden under a white sheet which masks their passion like a shroud. The visual symbolism of this sequence seems to take its inspiration from the surrealist figures of Magritte or Dali. The moody piano score by Martial Solal (reminiscent of mid-period Miles Davis) is actually enhanced by the notorious garble typical of optical sound recording.
Patricia goes to Orly airport to attend the press conference of a French author. The subject is "love" and Godard uses the opportunity to satirize the French intellectual. One reporter asks, "How many men can a woman have in a lifetime... physically?" The writer replies by holding up his fingers several times. Later Michel steals another American car (a '56 Thunderbird coupe), takes it to an auto yard where he is forced to beat the crook who tries to cheat him. Again Michel seems to be acting a role rather than expressing a reality.
Eventually he is betrayed by Patricia who then goes and tells him "I don't want to be in love with you... that's why I called the police." Before the cops arrive, however, his "connection" Antoine arrives in the street outside but just as he is receiving his payoff, they converge and shoot him. Fatally wounded, Michel makes his final run down the street but unlike Harry Lime, he has no sewer to crawl into.
As he lies on the pavement, he opens mouth wide, says, "You are... really...." He dies, although we see his passing indirectly in a closeup on Patricia's expression. A bystander tells her that Michel said "...really a little bitch." Not bad, considering the ugly name he called her earlier in the apartment.
So -- Art or Cargo Cult, that is the question. Is Breathless just a piece of childish mimicry hoping to evoke a new spirit of Film Noir? "...instead of writing criticism, I now film it," says Godard.
If Art forms go through a cycle of discovery, orthodoxy, and self-parody before either disappearing or entering another cycle -- a dialectic -- then one can see Breathless as a clear demarcation of the shift into formalism in the film narrative. But does the preoccupation with revolutionary form overwhelm the content?
The tension here between deconstruction and tradition is a bit like Patricia's self-professed dilemma: "I don't know if I'm unhappy because I'm not free, or if I'm not free because I'm unhappy."
© LR 2/77
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