This review is the first of an intended series that will look at the feature films of Jean-Luc Godard, starting here with À bout de souffle and continuing through to the present, if I can manage to get a hold of some of his more obscure films. It should, I hope, be a reasonably comprehensive and largely chronological look at the work of one of the most important, innovative and challenging filmmakers.
À bout de souffle, then, is a story about Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a small-time car thief who kills a policeman and is forced to hide out in Paris. While there, he tries to make contact with some fellow criminals and reconnect with former lover Patricia (Jean Seberg), an American student first seen selling the New York Herald Tribune on the Champs-Elysées.
The first five minutes of À bout de souffle is a great opening and clearly signals this film’s agenda – to break every rule in the book. The film uses a lot of jazz music in its score but the film itself is noticeably jazzy, moving along to its own rhythm, not afraid to throw in some discordance whenever possible. The film begins with a robbery, in which people look and nod and wave at each other but because Godard has not given us an establishing shot, we have no idea who is who and what is going on. Later, Godard will break the 180˚ rule, making a chase sequence look instead like an impending head-on collision. Michel, presumably making an escape having just stolen a car, will complain about cars overtaking him, wax lyrical about scenery and assess every women that he drives past. The music will be exciting when nothing exciting is onscreen and slow when it should be fast-paced. The confrontation with the policeman is so disjointed that the ensuing scene makes little sense (Michel is half inside his car, the policeman is walking down a lane, then Michel is standing on the lane, and the policeman, having been shot, is falling into some trees). We then have one of the many jump-cuts in the film, where we suddenly see Michel running through some fields, late at night, presumably being chased. Godard fades out here, deciding not to show the chase and the result. And all of this, and much more, occurs in the first five minutes.
When À bout de souffle first appeared in cinemas, these innovations were often taken as mere incompetence, but they are much more important than that. They make us, as an audience, realize how much there is in cinema that has been codified, how many rules there are for filming and editing and how reliant we are on these rules. Most of these rules came from Hollywood, where the traditional style was for invisible direction, lighting and editing. If the audience notices any of these things, then they have been distracted from the story, the characters or their popcorn. But Godard delights in his medium, as does is cinematographer Raoul Coutard and his editor Cécile Decugis, and here he shows how these rules are, effectively, a restraint on the possibilities of filmmaking. It needs hardly be said how influential this film is and how it made Godard the key filmmaker for a whole generation. À bout de souffle, then, is a great young film, every frame revealing a youthful energy and enthusiasm and, very possibly, a contempt for the older way of doing things.
This is true – and there are plenty of further examples that would be unnecessary to write down (just go watch it again if you’ve forgotten) – but it is not entirely what À bout de souffle is about. The term ‘À bout de souffle’ is frequently translated as ‘Breathless’, emphasising again that energy and youthfulness, but a more accurate translation is ‘End of Breath’ which is much more reminiscent of the terminal breath. Both Michel and Patricia are very tired of the world that they are in. Patricia has ambitions to write for a literary magazine and is an avid reader, but after an interview with the deeply obnoxious Parvulesco (played by Jean-Pierre Melville) she is thrown into a funk. Michel’s lifestyle seems exotic and exciting, modelled like the film itself on Hollywood gangster films (if you are wondering why Michel wipes his lips with his thumb so often, take another look at Bogie in The Big Sleep). However, we realize that Michel is even more tired than Patricia. In the end, Patricia glumly decides to return to her career (gained, it is suggested, by sleeping with or promising to sleep with her editor), choosing the path that everyone else has trod before her, while Michel is so fed up, he can’t even be bothered to get away from the police that he knows are coming. Look at the scene where Michel stops at a cinema and stands in silent tribute at a poster of Bogart (a poster for The Harder They Fall, mind, the last film Bogart made before he died), before wandering back into the world, a rare quiet moment in the film that feels leaden and sad. Or the moment during the usually upbeat extended bedroom scene where Michel sitting at the end of the bed and looks out of window and thinks about death, the camera observing him from behind and lingering on the moment. Putting the eye of a realist in the youth film genre, Godard reveals their empty heart, celebrating non-conformity at the same time that it encourages those who follow the rules. Like all Godard, there is a serious if not angry heart underneath all of the fun and games.
Godard had yet to find his style or his politics at the time he made À bout de souffle but the film remains rewarding nonetheless as an expression of a maverick young filmmaker who got the chance to make a film and was not going to waste it. Much darker than it would initially appear, À bout de souffle is not the epitome of cool as many praise it (one wonders how they deal with later Godard, if at all), but it is exuberant and thoroughly enjoyable. Much imitated but never truly repeated, it is a magnificent debut.