The reasons why Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘À bout de souffle’ is a ground-breaking milestone in the cinematic canon

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-What is your greatest ambition in life?

-To become immortal and then die.

 

The French New Wave filmmakers manifest their individual interpretation of the classical Hollywood cinema and Italian Neorealism. They crave to create something new which revolutionises the art of cinematography by recreating its rules. Susan Hayward argues that ‘the first New Wave was not politically engaged but it was anti-bourgeois in sentiment […]. And it was motivated by a desire to present the point of view of the individual in society’ (Hayward, 2000: 169). This is brilliantly demonstrated in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless. He experiments with traditions and conventions and illustrates the imperfections of reality but with a poetic authorial voice. The expected norms are overthrown by using sound, editing, montage, time, jump cuts and the narrative differently and revolutionarily. Due to the inability to communicate there remain unanswered questions that provoke the audience’s reflection. As R.W. Fassbinder puts it: ‘we have tried to construct our films upon our individual understanding of the American cinema’ (Fassbinder, 1975: 33). And exactly this is what Michel Poiccard does as a protagonist in a French New Wave movie: live his own reproduced version of American cinema.

Deleuze states that the French New Wave filmmakers attempt to deconstruct the action and disestablish it as a whole. A new awareness is awakened through the powerful impact of omnipresent images. Influenced by literary precursors they try to create literally extraordinary and altered forms of narrative. Deleuze analyses that the birth of an intellectual cinema claims evolutionary thoughts freed from every sensual distraction. The ‘voyage’ and the ‘continuous return journey’ are provoked by an impulse to run away from social restrictions and societal behavioural codes, which is essential in Godard’s Breathless (Deleuze, 2003: 208). The self-staged Michel is constantly driven by the urge to flee from the city to the countryside and to return again to his initial point because his life is a vicious circle. The never-ending state of flight and the love-hate relationship with his blurred identity, women in general and his persona are the leitmotiv of the movie. Deleuze explains that for the French New Wave ‘all that was necessary was a new type of tale [récit] capable of including the elliptical and the unorganised, as if the cinema had to begin again from zero, questioning afresh all the accepted facts of the American tradition’ (Deleuze, 2003: 211).

According to Deleuze in Breathless ‘we see the birth of a race of charming, moving characters who are hardly concerned by the events which happen to them – even treason, even death – and experience and act out obscure events which are as poorly linked as the portion of the any-space-whatever which they traverse’ (Deleuze, 2003: 213). Michel constantly complaints about infuriating circumstances that surround him but he does not make any beneficial, life-altering or socially acknowledgeable decisions. Instead of changing his lifestyle, his ambitions and his viewpoints, he commits one crime after another, including murder. One does not see it coming, the music is characterised by a lightness ignoring the seriousness of what is actually happening on screen. But it is exactly this superficiality that motivates and underlines Michel’s personality. He is impulsive, his life is a movie, he is the protagonist, the star thinking he has it all figured out, that he writes his story. Actions follow upon actions, the rhythm is quick, hectic and inexorable. The story has to move on, there is no time, no time for understanding, for reflection, time is flying which is illustrated by the jump cuts applied.

Hassam,_Champs_Elysees

Michel Marie states that ‘his [Jean-Luc Godard] film was to explore a hitherto unknown continent in the aesthetics of cinema, smash the boundaries of the conventionally ‘filmable’ and start again from scratch’ (Marie, 2000: 162). Michel is a character who does not allow any profundity, he acts according to set and expected clichés he has seen and internalised, being convinced that these construct his character, but he is not a Humphrey Bogart. He feels invincible and believes that there won’t be any consequences, he runs away from reality, from his proper self. It seems like he does not even consciously realise that he committed a murder, it just fits into his story and he moves on.  He tries to counteract the anonymity of an individual living in a city for himself, which is accomplished by the illuminated letters showcasing his name, the name of an alienated criminal. John J. Michalczyk claims that ‘the ensemble of these cultural fragments suggests that Breathless is a film of great aesthetic density, while superficially, it may appear to be a harmless tale of the adventures of a small-time gangster’ (Michalczyk, 1989: 1083). The poetic and vulgar language used is direct, it is natural, tragic and honest and that is what makes it aesthetic. Sincerity is always revolutionary.

Patricia is a double-edged person and she is definitely a multi-dimensional character unlike many stereotypes imposed on women to play and incorporate. She may look like the virginal, naïve and submissive blonde woman, but her mysterious Siamese smile gives multi-layered highlights to her personality. On the one hand she is the unhappy lover who is unsure about love, who approaches love theoretically instead of emotionally. On the other hand she is an unhappy thinker who asks philosophical questions and craves for certain reactions but does not get them. She is also a dreamer, she has aspirations and she openly lives out her sexuality. As Susan Hayward connects the themes in Breathless to the French New Wave characteristics:

‘Discourses were contemporary and about young people. Taboos around sexuality were ‘destroyed’ […] and the couple was represented as a complex entity with issues centring on power relations, lack of communication and questions of identity. The representation of women was more positive, women became more central to the narrative, and more agencing of their desire.’ (Hayward, 2000: 168)

Patricia, the woman with the title of a newspaper printed on her t-shirt and who cannot be read and decoded by Michel, plays an instrumental part in his life or maybe it is the other way round. Whose story is it? Who knows what is going to happen? Who is in charge? Who is acting and who is directing? Who is writing the story and who is living it? Maybe she is the one who has it all figured out. Whose identity is lost and whose is exposed or hidden? Whose identity do we actually get to know for sure? Maybe they are both directionless, wandering around, acting impulsively according to the rhythm of the movie. Godard forces us to question everything we see and to look for answers, for our proper interpretation of what he created. Michel and Patricia both reject the responsibility to listen to what the other one expresses even when the subjects of pregnancy and death are raised.

Dennis Turner explains that the identification process and the concentration on the plot in Breathless are consciously impeded and they are ‘replaced by a Brechtian defamiliarization through which the real relations between the triad of audience, author and film product reveal themselves’ (Turner, 1983: 52). Patricia sees something of herself in Michel, but she cannot find it, she is looking for her identity and he lost his. Choices and questions are essential in Breathless, we choose who we perform, we choose how we act, we are what we think. The moment where Michel cannot make a choice anymore, the moment where he will be breathless is when he is unable to choose between ‘grief’ and ‘nothingness’ because his fate is already sealed.

Mirrors are also elemental and symbolic because they have a reassuring effect, mostly on Michel who must make sure that the physical appearance is convincing and that his mirror-image gives him a meaning. Patricia tries to recognise her identity in mirrors and she is always seeking, staring, imagining. Michel subconsciously fights against his true self which gives him a tragic note. He is alienated from himself. Do we choose who we are or are we just who we are? Who are these people we are looking at? Do we really see them?

According to Turner, the New Wave filmmakers incite the spectator to look at things in a different way and to listen to something or someone else or to simply revolutionise their way of observing a movie consciously:

‘In other instances, the New Wave film is taken to show a victory for the author over the diegesis. […] These actions emphasize the arbitrariness of the narrative sequence and force the viewers’ attention upon the author as foregrounded orchestrator of the action.’ (Turner, 1983: 52)

Michel flees and hunkers down in Patricia’s apartment and she is the one who is a key-element in his life letting him further his plans. Whilst the women he connects with are actively creative and inventing themselves artistically and intellectually he just copies one of his idols. He orientates himself after Bogart, but he is truly lost and misguided. Marie explains that ‘the most fundamental innovation of À bout de souffle is the dialogue, which constitutes the most revolutionary use of language since the coming of sound’ (Marie, 2000: 166). In the dialogues Michel has with Patricia, which seem rather like misread and reactive monologues, he cannot keep up the conversation when confronted with her knowledgeability. When she attempts to include Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, William Faulkner, Jean Renoir and Dylan Thomas in their verbal ‘exchange’ he is thematically paralysed and tries to ‘reduce’ her chosen topics to everyday life, banality and superficiality. They talk to each other but they do not respond to each other which is a mutual flaw. They look at each other but do not see each other. Even when they are for once expressing an honest thought or fear, one ignores what the other says, they do not listen to each other and they both remain tragically unheard. Marie concludes the theme of (mis)communication perfectly:

‘In À bout de souffle, Godard was exploring every facet of verbal language. So far, the opening monologue and the false dialogue which characterizes the confrontations between Michel and Patricia have been discussed. These examples alone do not do justice to the wealth and diversity of the verbal material used in the film. […] To sum up, À bout de souffle is a tragedy of language and of the impossibility of communication.’  (Marie, 2000: 168)

Whilst Michel persistently blames, depreciatively generalises and pegs women as scapegoats complicating his life, he is financially dependent on them because he steals their money. He intrudes Patricia’s sphere like a parasite, like a crime suddenly penetrates the life of someone who has not seen it coming. Maybe he is aware of the fact that his time is running out which is anticipated by the inexistence of a horoscope in one newspaper and for him if there is no horoscope there is no future. He rejects to accept this personal truth and throws it away.

Michel certainly ‘lives dangerously until the end’ and he will definitely ‘fall hard’. Witnessing a car accident he reacts unaffectedly with an attitude that one accident is just one in a million like it is ‘just’ one life in a million; ‘the show must go on’, the masquerade must withstand. Again the music is ‘contradicting’ the action which came out of nowhere or exactly out of somewhere. He obsessively reads the newspapers which state that he has been identified as a killer and continues to walk boldly through the big city streets. Michalczyk explains that ‘since Breathless is a rarified blend of parody, allusion, pastiche, citation, and homage, it is especially useful for the reader to have access to notes on the myriad details that are literally crammed into each frame’ (Michalczyk, 1989: 1083).

The ticking time bomb Michel, who abandoned his identity and failed to live the illusion of the American Dream, will not be abandoned by Godard. He is the represented voice of a mislead generation craving to have his hours of fame and he got them in the French New Wave. Godard gave Michel life, telling his story, rendering him immortal and then he let him die. Michel knows he cannot go back now, it is all or nothing, he has to finish the story because it is reality, it is life. He gives as much sense to Patricia’s story as she does to his, maybe the expected roles are inverted, the clichés build on clichés deconstructed? Maybe we are all just ‘dead people in permission’. In the end ‘I am taking you’ becomes ‘I am going’, Michel tries to decide how the story goes, but Patricia determines the end. Michel has had enough, he is tired, he wants to sleep, he wants to be separated. When the bullet hits him, life hits him, the illusion falls apart, he feels something, he feels death, he cannot run away from death, not anymore. While he is dying, it is the first time Patricia and Michel truly see each other. Who is the director in life? Who are the actors? What we fear the most in other people is what we hate the most about ourselves: that at some point we will all end up being breathless. And that is dégueulasse.

 

Bibliography:

Deleuze, Gilles, ‘The crisis of the action-image’, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, (2003), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, p. 208, 211, 213.

Fassbinder, R. W., Interview with R. W. Fassbinder, Film Comment, 11, no. 6, (November-December, 1975), p. 33.

Hayward, Susan, ‘Auteur’ and ‘French New Wave’, Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts, (2000), London: Routledge, p.168, 169.

Marie, Michel, It Really Makes You Sick!: Jean-Luc Godard’s A bout de souffle, (2000), In: S. Hayward (ed) French Film: Texts and Contexts,  London: Routledge, p. 162, 166, 168.

Michalczyk, John J., review,  Breathless, Dudley Andrew, The French Review , Vol. 62, No. 6, Special Issue: 1789-1889-1989, (May, 1989), p. 1083.

Turner, Dennis, Breathless: Mirror Stage of the Nouvelle Vague, SubStance , Vol. 12, No. 4, Issue 41 (1983), p. 52.

 

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