À bout de souffle – At breaths End – Breathless 52 years on.
I watched Breathless (again) last week.
I know – lucky lucky me.
Of course it inspired me to buy myself a New York Herald Tribune T-shirt. I vowed to only ever wear stripes again. I almost cut all my hair and went back to being a blonde – Almost.
So what is there to say about this brilliant, seminal work of the French New Wave that hasn’t been said before? The first cry into the wilderness is that at Fifty two years down the track its as fresh and as alive as ever. Jean Seaberg, despite her prudish girlyness is still the girl we all want to be, with her free-spiritedness and her total devotion to herself. And there just aint nothin’ cooler than Jean-Paul Belmondo and his casual fatalism – the perfect bad boy – crushed in his wayward tracks by a love he has no shame in declaring. Unlike other seminal works of the French New Wave (I am thinking specifically here of Jules and Jim) the characters are fresh today and embody that spirit of joie de vivre that imbues the entire film.
So, for the three or four of you out there who haven’t yet seen this brilliant film (and are going to fire it at the video store on your way home this evening) I’ll give you the rough plot outline. Watch out for spoilers!:
Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is a young petty criminal who models himself on the film persona of Humphrey Bogart. After stealing a car in Marseille, Michel shoots a policeman who has followed him onto a country road. Penniless and on the run from the police, he turns to his American girlfriend Patricia (Jean Seberg), a student and aspiring journalist, who sells the New York Herald Tribune on the streets of Paris. The ambivalent Patricia unwittingly hides him in her apartment as he simultaneously tries to seduce her and call in a loan to fund their escape to Italy. At one point, Patricia says she is pregnant with Michel’s child. She learns that Michel is on the run when questioned by the police. Eventually, she betrays him, but before the police arrive, she tells Michel what she did. He is somewhat resigned to a life in prison, and does not try to escape at first. The police shoot him in the street and, after a prolonged death run, he dies “à bout de souffle” (at breath’s end).
Knowing what happens in this film isn’t the point however. The film itself is its own point. It’s got a too-cool-for-school roll up of cinematic references, including the entire films idolisation of Bogart which is exactly where my love of film began as a young girl. The film is a tribute to the never-gone-out-of-style-since passion for pop culture adoration, and may actually be the first film (argue this against me anyone?) that does glorify pop cultural references. but the passion for pop isn’t a flighty superficial one – it’s the integrity of Breathless that makes it so timeless. Godard is nothing if he’s not thorough and like all artists I admire he is deeply in touch with his own integrity. The film embraces his philosophical depth, but it is an examination of the superficial that is at the heart of the film. This is what Godard can do so well – because of his sureness of foot and his integrity as an auteur. Then there’s the ooh-la-la chic of Raoul Cotard’s black-and-white cinematography; the simmering yet self-aware dance of seduction enacted with such arch grace by Belmondo and Jean Seberg; the casual fatalism that never seems to go out of style, especially when spoken in French and accompanied by swirls of cigarette smoke. As a source of modish pleasure, Breathless retains its appeal to a remarkable degree.
An aspect that struck me, now that I am a Godard fan and have the benefit of seeing many of his films in a short space of time is the overall lightness, playfulness and buoyancy of Breathless. Godard is so excited, and it catches. This (argues Matthew Conolly of Slant Magazine) accounts for our enduring attachment to the film rather than the films overall modish, funky appeal. Godard is subtle so you wont have to deal with heavy-handed icon worship which helps with the timelessness (it’s really represented as a theme rather than object-oriented). But Conolly argues that it is the enthusiastic passion for cinema in Breathless that helps raise it to the status of timeless. We do have here a film that was worked on by so many film makers who would become future masters. Godard may be the director (interestingly Jean Seaberg was a little ‘worried’ about many of his tenchniques and thought the film would flop) but we have Raoul Cotard’s cinematography, Godard and Truffaut writing the script together, Martial Solal’s explosive score, and of course Melville-the-man-of-the-moment in a stunning little piece of irony-clad dedication when he throws some Godard slice of life at us as in his role as Parvulesco, the harried author. here is what Conolly had to say when he uses the Melville scene to support his point about why Breathless is such an enduring film:
Rather, what remains most striking, and most moving, about Breathless is its sophisticated yet largely guileless faith in the filmic medium, a cinephilia untainted by smugness or cynicism. Of course, such affection did not stop Godard from throwing out a slew of established filmmaking rules, from the continuity editing system to the notion that a film had to be inhabited by psychologically-consistent “characters” acting out a linear, cause-and-effect “plot.” But watching Breathless, one never gets the sense that Godard breaks these conventions out of anger or disgust—at least not yet. It comes from a place of jittery excitement and possibility, the double vision of appreciating so deeply the riches of cinema’s past and seeing so vividly what shape its future could take.
Don’t get me wrong: Godard remains as cool a customer as you remember. But even the sleekest of scenes can carry unexpected depth charges. Take the famous press conference set piece, where Seberg’s Patricia Franchini has been sent on assignment to interview famed author Parvulesco (the revered French director Jean-Pierre Melville). As reporters pepper the unflappable writer with queries on the nature of love and intimacy in contemporary society, Patricia keeps trying to get a word in edgewise, finally speaking up loudly enough to ask Parvulesco about his “greatest ambition.” After a pause, Parvulesco—what a great name, with all the vaguely European menace of a Sydney Greenstreet underworld kingpin—removes his sunglasses and answers famously, “To become immortal, and then die.” It’s a great line: gnomic and terse, emblematic of the film’s love of tough-guy nihilism.
I think there is more to it than this. What is so fascinating about Breathless is that it’s lived on long past the very thing it celebrates. It was Godard who said for a film to be great all you need is a girl and gun (paraphrasing here) and yet today, Godard is famous for giving us so much more. The passion for gangster films, while still alive, has dated in the post-modern world of feminism and the general boredom with nihilism. Those tough guys kinda look like dudes with mummy-issues these days. And yet, Breathless is able to absorb and transcend these contemporary ‘worries’ – something that Truffaut was never able to do. Elevate beyond context. For me it is part of what sets a Godard film apart, and aligns him with great writers who can transcend their age.
Conolly also writes about Godard’s ability to take a seemingly unessential moment and imbue it with the weight of a life lived. Check this out, following on from his comments above:
But what follows is even more interesting. Godard cuts back to a close-up of Seberg, who removes her own sunglasses and looks away puzzled. Martial Solal’s infectious score punctuates the shot, which lingers just long enough as Seberg slowly turns toward the camera in a look of meditative uncertainty. The scene ends with a delicious slow dissolve, her visage lingering in the frame as she gazes out enigmatically at the viewer like a grad student Mona Lisa. The point is not really to contemplate Parvulesco’s words along with Patricia, or even to really consider what Patricia thinks and feels about it herself. It’s about film’s ability to shape a stray moment seemingly devoid of content into an ambivalent and searching experience: how the close-up pulls us in and pushes us away simultaneously; how the dissolve makes us long for just one more second of contemplation. There’s hardly a moldier cliché in the movie lover’s handbook than to claim that a film is “about film itself,” but in moments like this, Godard foregrounds the medium without succumbing to empty flourish. He doesn’t weld style and substance so much as insist that style itself is a kind of substance, one that is suggestive and complex in its own right.
A little must be said of the exciting performances Godard is able to extract from Seaberg and Belmondo. The actors don’t inhabit characters so much as occupy a middle ground where play-acting and fan ardor replace the embodiment of set emotions and personality traits. Patricia and Belmondo’s Michel Poiccard both do some pretty questionable things throughout Breathless (he steals a car and shoots a cop; she turns him in for personal expediency), but as Geoffrey O’Brien pointed out in a recent Film Comment essay, we don’t really think of these actions as revealing or even important to who Michel and Patricia really are. They are the acts of the hard-boiled loners and femme fatales from which Michel and Patricia—and, most importantly, Godard—find their animating spirit, and to recreate their world of violence and betrayal is more a matter of aesthetic fidelity than moral query. What’s remarkable is how compelling their performances end up being, grounded not in psychological complexity, but an appreciation for the complicated pleasures of inhabiting a fantasy cine-world. Watching that great extended duet between Belmondo and Seberg in Patricia’s apartment, it’s striking to what extent we come to know them and their relationship through the books they love, the gestures they appropriate, the music they dismiss and swoon over. But Godard knows that the repetitions, the asides, the quotes from Faulkner and Thomas, all form a language in their own right: a secret code of pop-culture references and digressions through which moments of genuine flirtatiousness and melancholy flicker through. Yet again, Godard’s skill is matched only by his prescience.
Godard rescues us from the claustrophobic nature of this apartment of course, because that’s the man he is, but there are few greater scenes in cinematic history than this. But that is part of what I love about Godard. It’s the layers and the endless ability to watch his films over and over and see hear and feel for the newness each time. As I get more knowledge and experience, Godard was always there before me. Unlike so many contemporary reviewers I don’t have a problem with a so-called misogyny. On the contrary i see much more in Truffauts attempts to glorify women than I see in Godard’s Patricia. Her refusal to follow Michael is the ultimate act of liberation – no matter how she may be represented as under the gaze, Patricia chooses life, career and herself in the end and I see no greater act of liberation than this. Again, that’s Godard. What looked like misogyny in the 1970’s is revealed to be dramatically ahead of its time in the next century.
In the end I’m with Conolly again, the only description of this film is the cliché itself: This is film is timeless.
Oh – Post script! Two additional things to say:
1. Don’t even consider seeing the American attempt at this film – you will kill brain cells you’ll never get back. Take up smoking – it will do you less damage.
2. There is a really interesting little tid-bit from the wiki that I will add here for you:
Michel’s death scene is one of the most iconic scenes in the film, but the film’s final lines of dialogue are the source of some confusion for English-speaking audiences. In some translations, it is unclear whether Michel is condemning Patricia, or alternatively condemning the world in general.
As Patricia and Detective Vital catch up with the dying Michel, there is the following exchange, according to the transcript published in Dudley Andrew’s book on the film:
MICHEL: C’est vraiment dégueulasse.
PATRICIA: Qu’est ce qu’il a dit?
VITAL: Il a dit que vous êtes vraiment “une dégueulasse”.
PATRICIA: Qu’est ce que c’est “dégueulasse”?
In his book, Andrew translates the dialogue thus:
MICHEL: That’s really disgusting.
PATRICIA: What did he say?
VITAL: He said, “You are really a bitch.”
PATRICIA: What is “dégueulasse” [bitch]?
Dégueulasse is the noun and adjective form of dégueuler, a slang verb meaning “to vomit.”
Andrew’s translation obscures the subtlety of Vital’s misquotation of Michel; in the original French, it is not clear whether Vital misquotes him deliberately, or simply mishears. Other translations have made the possibility that Vital mishears Michel more apparent. In the English captioning of the 2001 Fox-Lorber Region One DVD, “dégueulasse” is translated as “scumbag”, producing the following dialogue:
MICHEL: It’s a real scumbag.
PATRICIA: What did he say?
VITAL: He said, “You’re a real scumbag”.
PATRICIA: What’s a scumbag?
The 2007 Criterion Collection Region One DVD uses a less literal translation that renders the French into a familiar American colloquialism:
MICHEL: Makes me want to puke.
PATRICIA: What did he say?
VITAL: He said you make him want to puke.
PATRICIA: What’s that mean, “puke”?
This translation also was used for the 2010 restoration print.