BOUT DE SOUFFLE
Fr 1959, dir. Jean-Luc Godard, 89m
Paris, 1959: you are there. Michel, A charismatic young hot-head (Jean-Paul Belmondo) has killed a cop in Marseilles and fled to the capital to hide out with Patricia, his on-off American girlfriend (Jean Seberg). As the authorities close in, Michel and Patricias relationship comes under increasing pressure
But Breathless isn’t regarded as a cinematic landmark because of its plot, which could most charitably described as flimsy. Debutant director Godard set out with the express intention of making a movie as if no-one had ever made one before, and he succeeded. Before Breathless, most pictures were just filmed scripts Godard wanted instead to make his film represent his view of the world: jagged, fresh, unorthodox, unpredictable. He ended up inventing a new way of telling a story through film abrupt jump-cuts through time and space, improvisations, no establishing shots, a reliance on natural light and settings that broke many cinematic rules and dared audiences to keep up, setting off a whole Nouvelle Vague of European cinema. Forty years on, the Godards effect is visible in just about every American or European film, but Godards innovations are now taken so much for granted that when they’re foregrounded as in the Danish dogme films were once again taken aback.
Most of Breathless still seems incredibly fresh, especially Coutards try-anything camerawork you can feel Godards excitement as he pushes back boundary after boundary. But the script isn’t anything like as accomplished as the direction: while Belmondos remains an irresistible beat-punk characterisation, Sebergs Patricia doesn’t come into anywhere near as sharp a focus. This causes problems when, in the second half of the film, the emphasis shifts away from him and onto her.
The final image of the film is of Patricia as she turns her back on the camera, and because the psychology of the character is still muddy, there isn’t much of a satisfying kick – unlike Jim McBrides otherwise-inferior 1983 remake with Richard Gere, which went out on a blazingly dynamic freeze-frame that works ten times better.
Even more distracting is the relentless, repetitive jazzy score Godard lathers over just about every scene, possibly to hide the fact that all the sound had to be recorded after the images. This is the one element of the film which has dated badly, especially placed alongside Louis Malles collaboration with Miles Davis in another 50s Parisian thriller, 1957s Lift to the Scaffold, where the music and the movie fused into a cohesive organic whole.
Godard is also guilty of miscalculation when he allows a bedroom two-hander between Belmondo and Seberg about half an hour in to run on and on and on, when the film is otherwise all about speed and energy, sharp edges and quick emotions. Theres a similar scene towards the end which is much more satisfying the camera follows first one character then the other, their dialogue overlapping, Altman-style, and we get a real sense of communication breakdown.
Its at moments like these other highlights include speed-loving Belmondo cursing slow drivers in his car, Seberg attending a bizarre airport press-conference with a self-important novelist – that Breathless becomes something special, something just that little bit different from other movies. Godards achievement is to convey a real sense of immediacy and spontaneousness, while carefully and rigorously exploring ideas.
The meaning of words is always being questioned Patricia is always asking for tricky phrases to be clairified, and Michel delights in the most current of street slang: to a phone operator, he says nonante for 90, instead of the more polite mouthful quatre-vingt-dix. (This aspect of the film allows me to digress: why Breathless for A Bout de Souffle? Out of Breath would be more accurate, but even then, which of the characters is ever even winded only the ever-hurrying cops, as far as I can tell).
Language, like identity, nationality, and cinema, is volatile, fluid, open to sudden change. Its no coincidence that so many of the characters have foreign names Patricias surname is Franchini, Michels main underworld contacts are called Berrutti and Tolmatchoff, the novelist is called Parvulesco or that so many of these either have strong non-French accents, or else dip in and out of foreign languages: Michel, who has just returned from a trip to the Rome film studio Cinecitta, dots his conversation with Italian phrases.
The Cinecitta reference points up another of the frameworks which bind together Godards apparently haphazard constructions. Breathless is, if nothing else, a celebration of cinema itself its history as well as its potential future. The film, dedicated to low-rent Hollywood studio Monogram Picture, is full of overt cinematic references Belmondo stands transfixed before a poster of Humphrey Bogart in his last movie, The Harder They Fall, and imitates his thumbnail-across-the-lips gesture. He cheekily rebuffs a girl trying to sell him a copy of Cahiers du Cinema, the film journal to which Godard was a regular contributor, and later, fleeing the cops, takes Patricia to the movies.
But not all audiences would know that Laszlo Kovacs, Michels pseudonym, was the name of a noted Hollywood cameraman, or that Michel himself is supposed to be the son of the lovers in the Jean Vigos 1930s classic LAtalante, or that the actor playing philosophical novelist Parvulesco is none other than director Jean-Pierre Melville.
Ultimately whats great about Breathless is the fact that it works just as well for the audience in search of a sexy, romantic thriller as it does for those in search of cinematic innovation and philosophical enquiry. Godard brings to vivid life a specific time, a specific place a cinematic world, and for an hour and a half, youre inside that world. If you can, see Breathless in a cinema, in the middle of a bustling city. Coming out of the darkness into the light, you may well find that the street looks different: through new eyes, it looks better.
Click here for a 1970 interview (not by me!) with Jean-Luc Godard.
by Neil Young