“All in all, I’m a dumb bastard… If you’ve got to, you’ve got to.”
Thus criminal Michel Poiccard opens in a voice-over in
Jean-Luc Godard’s classic 1960 film À bout de soufflé (Breathless). Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) looks up from a trashy newspaper exhibiting a tarty semi-nude, takes a few puffs from his cigarette, and hops down onto the street to hot-wire an American car. In dress, in ambiance, and in mannerism, Poiccard simulates the classic film noir hero—he is a shameless admirer of Humphrey Bogart. At one point Poiccard pauses outside a movie theatre to gaze at Bogart’s weathered yet self-assured mug, and like a little boy posing as his idol in a mirror, Poiccard takes a breath to draft that virility not only into his expression, but also into his style.
This was the second film in a series of films devoted to the idea of the rebel sponsored by UFO+, a subdivision of the University Film Organization dedicated to showing more sophisticated and artistic films (while UFO, or “UFO-“ as it is affectionately called, screens more popular or blockbuster films). UFO+ kicked off the series with the classic American film Rebel Without a Cause (1955). In addition to films rebellious in plot and character, UFO+ is screening films rebellious in style.
Godard’s Breathless is a classic of the French New Wave movement of the 1960s. New Wave films operated on tiny budgets, were shot almost entirely on location, and were tightly edited so as to be the complete antitheses of “epic” films. Barely 90 minutes in length, Breathless takes the heroes of American 1940s classics––characters with confidence echoing that of Raymond Chandler’s private detective Philip Marlowe––and fondly subverts them.
Poiccard breathes sans cigarette for perhaps five minutes of the entire film and rubs his lips continually in a truly Bogartian style. Yet Breathless takes place almost entirely during the day; where are the shadows for piercing gazes under lonely street lamps, or the sultry femme fatales enshrouded in cigarette smoke? Poiccard is film noir sometimes, but he is also stingingly human and, at times, pathetic in his confessions of love: “It’s silly, but I love you. I wanted to see you, to see if I’d want to see you,” he tells Patricia (Jean Seberg).
After stealing a car in the opening of the film, Poiccard drives through the countryside, commenting to himself, or to the audience, and cursing the other drivers. “Women drivers are cowardice personified,” he says at one point.
But just as quickly as his mind jumps from one thought to the next (he hums to himself, remarks “Nice countryside,” and goes back to humming), Godard cuts from shot to shot. Rather than shooting continuously, Godard cuts randomly and overtly to different points in time––different expressions from Poiccard, different thoughts, different cars on the road. Godard continues with the same style in shots of busy Parisian cafés, highlighting the rapidity of the people ordering, eating, leaving, rushing about. Yet at other times, Godard shoots for nearly two minutes straight without a single cut.
The film noir characters, entirely pre-meditated in their dispositions, become Parisian everyday-men with spontaneity, wrinkles, and desperate pleas for love––in films just as haphazard as their streams of thought. Godard intentionally parallels in the film’s style the behaviors of his characters. Both are equally human and quotidian.
And yet, as Godard seems to draw the audience closer with such stylistic choices, he also seems to push them away. For instance, consider a long scene during which Poiccard lies in Patricia’s bed, having snuck in while she was out, only in his underwear. Patricia meanwhile sits on the bed, and they talk about love and relationships.
In this scene the male protagonist, reclining in a bed topless, is atypically sexualized. Patricia is fully clothed and several times gets up from the bed, walks around her room, enters the bathroom and returns. Poiccard continually asks her to have sex with him. He gazes at a magazine of pin-up girls and glances up Patricia’s skirt while she speaks of Romeo and Juliet and their undying devotion to one another. Distance is established in their dispositions toward love and eroticism.
And here, also unconventionally, Patricia seems to be in the more powerful position of the two. Poiccard appears desperate in his pleas for sex, and Patricia continues to decline in her capricious musings. She wanders the room in Poiccard’s shirt, studying a photograph of herself on the wall behind her. Perhaps because of the film noir role Poiccard is playing, he expects Patricia to fall into his lap and beg him for more––like the women of Chandler’s novels.
When they do make love, it is unclear. The two hide under the sheets like children playing hide-and-seek. Godard cuts from one ambiguous movement under the sheets to another, and when their lovemaking concludes, the same absentminded daydreaming ensues once again; neither really listens to the other.
While his characters engage in the act that is arguably the most intimate two people can share, Godard cuts intermittently and hides his characters from view. The viewer sits through nearly half an hour of their dreamy, disconnected musings. The viewer knows the intellectual aspects of the characters intimately, but in the emotional and physical realms, the audience knows virtually nothing of Poiccard and Patricia because of the distance between the two characters.
Their romance began as a fling in Nice a few weeks prior. Each one is trying to determine if he or she loves the other. At the end of the film, Poiccard reflects, “When we talked, I talked about me, you talked about you, when we should have talked about each other.”
Each character strives to play a role, Poiccard admiring Bogart’s picture and Patricia contemplating her own in a man’s dress shirt. Each is out of place in society and in their relationship. And yet perhaps the distance they have from their ideals is the most human element of all. Godard flirts with the film noir genre in Breathless, but he knows that some affairs are merely satisfactory and that love stories can end only with separation.
Throughout the film, Poiccard speaks in slang that his American lover is unable to translate; she must ask, “What does that mean?” throughout the film. In the final scene, bleeding from a gunshot wound in his back, Poiccard says to Patricia, “It’s a real scumbag.”
“What did he say?” Patricia asks a bystander.
“He said, ‘You’re a real scumbag.’”
A poor translation for a miscommunication – what could be more fitting for Godard’s epic tale of the everyday?