Breathless Film Essay Ideas
Two trailers bookend my half-a-century of writing professionally about the cinema and bracket the career of the man who is arguably the most influential moviemaker of my lifetime. Fifty years ago this month I dropped into an Oslo cinema while waiting for a midnight train and saw an unforgettable trailer for a French picture. It cut abruptly between a handsome, broken-nosed actor I'd never come across before, giant posters of Humphrey Bogart, and the familiar features of Jean Seberg, whom I knew to be an idol of French cinéastes as the protegee of Otto Preminger. Shot in high contrast monochrome, rapidly edited, interspersed with puzzling statements in white-on-black and black-on-white lettering, it was like no other trailer I'd seen, and I was captivated. Not until my return to London did I discover that the broken-nosed actor was Jean-Paul Belmondo and the film was the debut feature of the Cahiers du Cinéma critic Jean-Luc Godard. It had opened in Paris six weeks before to considerable acclaim and had been made with the help of two fellow critics-turned-directors, François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol, whose first films I'd seen. When A Bout de souffle (aka Breathless) opened in London a year later, it did live up to my expectations.
Eighty years old this November, Godard has just compiled another trailer for his latest (according to him, his last) picture, Film Socialisme. As provocative and original as ever, the two-minute trailer can be viewed online. It is in fact the whole film, speeded up for an audience too impatient to concentrate for two hours. The movie, premiered at Cannes last month, has subtitles that are deliberately unintelligible to anyone who doesn't understand the various languages in which it's made. In an interview with that other onetime revolutionary firebrand of the 1960s, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Godard said simply: "Don't translate, learn languages." For nearly 40 years I've been convinced that whenever a Godard movie is shown at Cannes, everybody in the world interested in seeing it is present at the Palais du Festival, elbowing other critics aside as they struggle to get into the early-morning press show. Nowadays, I only see a new film by the aloof, hectoring, didactic Godard when wild horses turn up at my front gate to drag me to a London press screening.
How, then, to explain what Godard meant to us back in the 60s? Why did I put on the dustjacket of my first book a photograph of myself scowling in a leather jacket and dark glasses, a cigarette in the corner of my mouth, because I thought it made me look like Godard? Why was I thrilled when Truffaut, as the director in his La Nuit américaine, eagerly tears open a parcel of books on the cinema, one of which is a symposium on Godard containing my 1965 essay on Une Femme mariée? Why did we sit around discussing the ideas and innovations of Godard the way young filmgoers today talk about box-office grosses, special effects and continuity errors?
Since the mid-50s we'd been looking for the new in the arts, society and politics, and our latest hopes were being invested in our cinema's working-class realism, which came out of fiction and the theatre, and in the nouveau roman and nouvelle vague from across the Channel. The latter term was coined in L'Express in 1957 by Françoise Giroud to describe the whole postwar generation and was applied to the cinema the following year by Pierre Billard in Cinéma 58. Talk of the new wave dominated Cannes in 1959, when films as different from each other as Marcel Camus's Black Orpheus, Alain Resnais's Hiroshima mon amour and Truffaut's Les Quatre cents coups were perceived as characteristic examples of the new movement. Of the three, only Truffaut was a critic, and along with Godard, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette wrote for Cahiers du Cinéma. Their polemical writings were devoted to overthrowing the cinematic old guard they called "Le cinéma du papa" (Dad's cinema) and promoting the politique des auteurs. They saw directors (or at least a select group of them) as auteurs, a term soon introduced into worldwide usage. These omniscient figures, whose ranks they sought to join, were seen as imposing their personalities, at times almost mystically, on every film they made, wielding what the moviemaker and theorist Alexandre Astruc called "le camera stylo" or cinematic pen.
Between 1958 and 1963 an astonishing 170 French filmmakers directed their first features, happily marching under the new wave banner, which was as vague as it was in vogue. But few were truly radical and innovative. The chief exception was Godard, the 30-year-old Franco-Swiss intellectual, as passionate about Hegel as he was about Hitchcock, an artist bent on transforming the nature of cinema and with it the world. "Godard is not merely an iconoclast," that prophet of modernism Susan Sontag declared in 1968, "he is a deliberate 'destroyer' of cinema."
Breathless was the real thing. It was what we'd been waiting for, and it has taken its place alongside 20th-century works that have become familiar landmarks yet not lost their ability to shock and surprise: Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, Eliot's The Waste Land, Joyce's Ulysses, Dali and Buñuel's Un Chien andalou, Picasso's Guernica, Welles's Citizen Kane, Beckett's Waiting for Godot, Burroughs's Naked Lunch. They are what Ezra Pound was talking about when he said that "great literature is news that remains news".
Claude Chabrol, who served as supervising producer on Breathless, famously warned that great subjects rarely make great films. And Godard, the master of the gnomic epigram and perceptive paradox, once said: "All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl." This was the basis of the brief scenario that Truffaut, a fellow admirer of film noir and série noire pulp fiction, provided for Breathless. Its antihero, the swaggering, misogynistic petty criminal Michel (Belmondo), steals a car in the south of France and kills a policeman on the road to Paris, where he takes up with an old girlfriend, the well-heeled American, Patricia (Seberg). They talk of life and literature (in particular Faulkner's The Wild Palms) in a seedy hotel, make love and visit the movies while he tries to get money owed him by criminal associates. The police close in, Patricia betrays him. Hardboiled B-feature stuff. But the style is everything, a calculated destruction and remaking of traditional film grammar, and Godard formulated his much-quoted idea that "a film should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order".
The film is dedicated to Monogram Pictures, the celebrated B-movie studio on Hollywood's Poverty Row, the camera is handheld, the editing is abrupt and inconsistent, Raoul Coutard's masterly monochrome photography is harsh, hard-edged, reliant on natural light. The much-admired director of existential gangster pictures, Jean-Pierre Melville, makes an appearance as himself, the first of such cameos in a Godard picture. The work of other directors is evoked or alluded to, among them Budd Boetticher (Westbound), Samuel Fuller (Forty Guns), Otto Preminger (Whirlpool), Robert Aldrich (Ten Seconds to Hell), and Bogart is a looming presence. We are constantly distanced in the manner of Brecht's alienation effect, told that what we are watching is a film, but also that movies, like our lives, are halls of mirrors.
Godard's methods of work on Breathless were purposefully chaotic. He admitted that he deliberately created confusion to achieve "a greater possibility of invention". Shooting in the busy streets of Paris, he avoided crowd control, and at one point a policeman leapt from a passing bus to assist an apparently dying Belmondo.
Over the next eight years Godard made a dozen feature films and contributed to several portmanteau pictures that defined and refined his art, and they've influenced several generations of cineastes from Nagisa Oshima through Wim Wenders to Quentin Tarantino. Yet the playfulness, the apparent sheer love of the movies, eventually gave way to a deep ambivalence, as his doubts about Hollywood changed to loathing and his sceptical attitude towards the States became unabashed anti-Americanism. "Do you love the cinema?" he was asked around the time of Breathless. He replied: "I have contempt for it. It is nothing. It does not exist. Thus I love it. I love it yet at the same time I have contempt for it."
Most of his 1960s films are masterpieces or near-masterpieces. Several ran into trouble with the censors. Some didn't get released in Britain until years after they were made. Godard managed to attract major stars both then and later. He was constantly at the centre of controversy, debate and even scandal, ever ready with a quote for the press or a quotable line in a film. He mocked the film business in Le Mépris, subverted the musical in Une Femme est une femme, questioned the very basis of marriage in Une Femme mariée, showed present-day Paris as a horrific, depersonalised city of the future in his bleak sci-fi film Alphaville. But none of the later films had an impact comparable with Breathless, and as the decade progressed, his characters turned from nihilistic outsiders to slogan-mouthing revolutionaries. His farewell to anything resembling the mainstream came in 1967 with Weekend, which ended with the title "Fin du cinéma". He then worked within a leftwing collective on low-budget pictures, most of them on video, before moving with his collaborator and third wife, Anne-Marie Miéville, to Switzerland, which has been his base ever since.
Yet if Godard was ever a mainstream director, then he started to paddle rapidly towards the river's parallel tributaries as early as 1963. That was when he made Le Mépris, a million-dollar production financed by American producer Joseph Levine and the Italian tycoon Carlo Ponti. They wanted a combination of art-house chic and upmarket sexploitation that would show off the naked charms of Brigitte Bardot. She was cast as the wife of a French screenwriter (Michel Piccoli) working on an Italian version of The Odyssey directed by Fritz Lang and produced by a snarling Hollywood mogul played by Jack Palance. The producers didn't like the fractured masterpiece they were given, edited their own versions, and were denounced as "King Kong Levine" and "Mussolini Ponti". Godard slapped Ponti's 69-year-old Paris representative in public and got a 500 franc fine.
This was the first of a string of confrontations and demolitions that included helping to close down the Cannes film festival in May 1968 as an act of solidarity with demonstrating students and striking workers. Six months later he punched Iain Quarrier, the British co-producer of his One Plus One (AKA Sympathy for the Devil), in the face and stomach on the stage of the National Film Theatre. Richard Roud, author of the first book in English on Godard and director of the London film festival, had brought Quarrier and Godard together for a public discussion on the film's re-editing, and the assault was preceded by Godard advising the spectators to demand their money back.
The worst conflict, however, was the split between Godard and his oldest friend and collaborator, François Truffaut, the man whose first act on gaining a certain industrial muscle by winning a prize at Cannes with Les Quatre cents coups was to help his colleague get his feet on the feature film ladder. There was jealousy and principle on Godard's side, a mixture of guilt and exasperation on Truffaut's. They traded public insults during the 1970s and their irreconcilable differences were never repaired. When Truffaut died in 1984, Godard praised his criticism but refused to make any favourable comments on his films. Truffaut had come to terms with the film industry, Godard would never consider such a compromise. Not until the publication in 1988 of Truffaut's collected letters, which contained a 1973 exchange between the two, did most of us understand the depth of the breach between them. Godard's letter pointed out what he considered the dishonesty of La Nuit américaine, calling Truffaut a liar for not mentioning his affair with its star Jacqueline Bisset. He then demanded as his right that Truffaut should invest 10m francs in his new low-budget movie, Un simple film.
Truffaut's scathing reply, which occupies six full pages of the book, lists a succession of slights, insults and betrayals, calls Godard a shit several times, and begins with the statement: "Jean-Luc. Just so you won't be obliged to read this unpleasant letter right to the end, I'm starting with the essential point: I will not co-produce your film." It has to be added, however, that Godard wrote an affectionate introduction for the Truffaut book, a characteristic mixture of eloquence and obscurity, in which he said, looking back on their youth: "The cinema had taught us how to live; but life, like Glenn Ford in The Big Heat, was to take its revenge."
Breathless opens in cinemas on 25 June and is released on DVD on 13 September
An exhibition of Raymond Cauchetier's photos, Raymond Cauchetier: La Nouvelle Vague, runs at James Hyman Gallery from 14 July to 28 August. www.jameshymangallery.com
When we talked, I talked about me, you talked about you, when we should have talked about each other.
-- Michel to Patricia
Modern movies begin here, with Jean-Luc Godard's "Breathless" in 1960. No debut film since "Citizen Kane" in 1942 has been as influential. It is dutifully repeated that Godard's technique of "jump cuts" is the great breakthrough, but startling as they were, they were actually an afterthought, and what is most revolutionary about the movie is its headlong pacing, its cool detachment, its dismissal of authority, and the way its narcissistic young heroes are obsessed with themselves and oblivious to the larger society.
There is a direct line through "Breathless" to "Bonnie and Clyde," "Badlands" and the youth upheaval of the late 1960s. The movie was a crucial influence during Hollywood's 1967-1974 golden age. You cannot even begin to count the characters played by Pacino, Beatty, Nicholson, Penn, who are directly descended from Jean-Paul Belmondo's insouciant killer Michel.
"Breathless" remains a living movie that retains the power to surprise and involve us after all these years. What fascinates above all is the naivete and amorality of these two young characters: Michel, a car thief who idolizes Bogart and pretends to be tougher than he is, and Patricia (Jean Seberg), an American who peddles the Paris edition of the New York Herald-Tribune while waiting to enroll at the Sorbonne. Do they know what they're doing? Both of the important killings in the movie occur because Michel accidentally comes into possession of someone else's gun; Patricia's involvement with him seems inspired in equal parts by affection, sex and fascination with his gangster persona.
Michel wants to be as tough as the stars in the movies he loves. He practices facial expressions in the mirror, wears a fedora, and is never, ever seen without a cigarette, removing one from his mouth only to insert another. So omnipresent is this cigarette that Godard is only kidding us a little when Michel's dying breath is smoky. But Belmondo at 26 still had a little of the adolescent in him, and the first time we see him, his hat and even his cigarette seem too big for his face. He was "hypnotically ugly," Bosley Crowther wrote in his agitated New York Times review, but that did not prevent him from becoming the biggest French star between Jean Gabin and Gerard Depardieu.
Seberg was restarting her career after its disastrous launch in America. Otto Preminger staged a famous talent search for the star of his "Saint Joan" (1957), and cast an inexperienced 18-year-old Marshalltown, Iowa, girl; Seberg received terrible reviews, not entirely deserved, and more bad notices for "Bonjour Tristesse" (1958), which Preminger made next to prove himself right. She fled to Europe, where she was only 21 when Godard cast her for "Breathless."
Her Patricia is the great enigma of the movie. Michel we can more or less read at sight: He postures as a gangster, maintains a cool facade, is frightened underneath. His persona is a performance that functions to conceal his desperation. But what about Patricia? Somehow it is never as important as it should be that she thinks she is pregnant, and that Michel is the father. She receives startling items of information about Michel (that he is a killer, that he is married, that he has more than one name) with such apparent detachment that we study that perfectly molded gamin face and wonder what she can possibly be thinking. Even her betrayal of him turns out to be not about Michel, and not about right and wrong, but only a test she sets for herself to determine if she loves him or not. It is remarkable that the reviews of this movie do not describe her as a monster--more evil, because she's less deluded, than Michel.
The filming of "Breathless" has gathered about it a body of legend. It was one of the key films of the French New Wave, which rejected the well-made traditional French cinema and embraced a rougher, more experimental personal style. Many of the New Wave directors began as critics for the anti-establishment magazine Cahiers du Cinema. The credits for "Breathless" are a New Wave roll call, including not only Godard's direction but an original story by Francois Truffaut (Godard famously wrote each day's shooting script in the morning). Claude Chabrol is production designer and technical adviser, the writer Pierre Boulanger plays the police inspector, and there are small roles for Truffaut and Godard himself (as the informer). Everyone was at the party; the assistant director was Pierre Rissient, who wears so many hats he is most simply described as knowing more people in the cinema than any other single person.
Jean-Pierre Melville, whose own crime movies in the 1950s pointed the way to the New Wave, plays the writer interviewed by Patricia at Orly, where he expounds on life and sex ("Two things are important in life. For men, women. For women, money"). Melville's "Bob le Flambeur" (1955) is referenced when we meet the man who informed on Bob, or when Michel tells a friend, "Bob the gambler would have cashed my check."
One inside joke in the film is always mentioned, but is not really there. Michel's alias is "Laszlo Kovacs," and countless writers inform us this is a reference to the legendary Hungarian cinematographer. In fact, Godard had not met Kovacs at the time, and the reference is to the character Belmondo played in Chabrol's "A Double Tour" (1959). In a film with so many references to the past of the cinema, it is amusing to find a coincidental reference to its future.
Godard's key collaborator on the film was the cinematographer Raoul Coutard, who worked with him many times, notably on "Weekend" (1968). It was only Coutard's fourth film, and his methods became legend: How when they could not afford tracks for a tracking shot, he held the camera and had himself pushed in a wheelchair. How he achieved a grainy look that influenced many other fiction films that wanted to seem realistic. How he scorned fancy lighting. How he used hand-held techniques even before lightweight cameras were available. How he timed one shot of Belmondo so that the streetlights on the Champs Elysses came on behind him. There is a lovely backlit shot of Belmondo in bed and Seberg sitting beside the bed, both smoking, the light from the window enveloping them in a cloud.
That's from a long scene that's alive with freshness and spontaneity. Patricia returns home to find Michel in her bed, and they talk, flirt, smoke, fight, finally make love. She quotes Faulkner: "Between grief and nothing, I will take grief." Michel says he would choose nothing; "grief is a compromise." She poses in front of a Renoir poster of a young girl, and asks who is prettier. Michel sits below a Picasso poster of a man holding a mask. Throughout this long scene, perplexingly, they both throw their discarded cigarettes out the window.
In this scene and throughout the film, Godard uses jump cuts--cuts within continuous movement or dialogue, with no attempt made to make them match. The technique "was a little more accidental than political," writes the Australian critic Jonathan Dawson. The finished film was 30 minutes too long, and "rather than cut out whole scenes or sequences, Godard elected to trim within the scene, creating the jagged cutting style still so beloved of action filmmakers. Godard just went at the film with the scissors, cutting out anything he thought boring."
The technique adds charm to a scene where the two drive through Paris in a stolen convertible, and there is a series of closeup cuts over her shoulder as Michel describes her. When the two lovers, fleeing the police, sneak into a movie, it is a scene directly quoted in "Bonnie and Clyde"--which, we recall, both Godard and Truffaut were once to direct. In each case, the dialogue reflects the action; Bonnie and Clyde hear "we're in the money," and Michel and Patricia hear dialogue about a woman "covering up for a cheap parasite."
The movie had a sensational reception; it is safe to say the cinema was permanently changed. Young directors saw it and had abandoned their notions of the traditional studio film before they left the theater. Crowther of the Times, who was later to notoriously despise its descendant "Bonnie and Clyde," said of "Breathless" that "sordid is really a mild word for its pile-up of gross indecencies." The jump cuts to him were "pictorial cacophony."
Yet Crowther conceded, "It is no cliche," and the film's bold originality in style, characters and tone made a certain kind of genteel Hollywood movie quickly obsolete. Godard went on to become the most famous innovator of the 1960s, although he lost the way later, with increasingly mannered experiments. Here in one quick, sure move, knowing somehow just what he wanted and how to obtain it, he achieved a turning point in the cinema just as surely as Griffith did with "The Birth of a Nation" and Welles with "Citizen Kane."