“I knew nothing of life except what I knew through the cinema.”
- Jean-Luc Godard, circa 1968.
Today, Breathless/À bout de souffle is a monument. Since its release in March 1960, its jumpy, rambunctious, movie-loving pop sense has been ripped off, imitated, misunderstood and canonised. Still, it's possible, without first revisiting the moment of Breathless to undervalue what a staggering crash it was and must have been.
In a sense, the Nouvelle Vague was already two years old when Jean-Luc Godard, auto-didactic, and notorious Cahiers du cinema critic, was about to turn the camera on the first shot on the first day of his first feature on August 17, 1959.
The 'New Wave' was a phrase originated by journalist Francois Giroud in L'Express in October 1957. At first, it wasn't intended to refer to a new breed of filmmakers at all. According to Godard biographer Richard Brody, Giroud was talking about the entire generation of young people – then aged 18-30 – who were still at school during World War II. Immersed in existentialism, engrossed in the possibilities of art, and somewhat hostile to conventional politics, she presaged, says Brody, that once they reached positions of prominence their muse would alter the collective psyche of France in a profound way.
Godard, the son of wealthy Swiss-French parents, was still only a teenager when the Germans surrendered. In post-war Paris he discovered Sartre. By then, he was spending an unholy amount of hours at the Cinematheque where he was learning about cinema and life; he was amongst friends there, including future Nouvelle Vague figures Jacques Rivette and Francois Truffaut. Godard's cinematic heroes were Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, and later, Sam Fuller and Nick Ray. Not one of these directors was then fashionable. By age 20, he was publishing as a critic. One time while sitting in the Café de Fore, favoured salon of Simone de Beauvoir, he was heard to declare himself the “Cocteau of his generation”. He was holding a rose at the time. He began writing for Cahiers du cinema and, with his young colleagues, began to formulate ideas in its pages that would become a kind of manifesto for the New Wave filmmakers. A key idea was that film could become a “camera-pen”. Cinema could be as personal, obsessive and abstract as an essay or a novel. Godard and his pals were interrogating and then remaking the very essence of what was cinematic; its language and philosophy and practice. Cinema, so derided as inferior against the fine arts, was their religion and with Breathless it would become Godard's subject.
Godard was planning a feature by 1956. All attempts stalled. By 1959, Truffaut was in Cannes with his first feature, The 400 Blows, where it was met with great success. Meanwhile, Godard was stuck in Paris: “What the fuck am I doing here?” he told a pal. Godard looted some cash reserves from Cahiers for travel fare and headed for the Riviera. Once in Cannes, he reminded Truffaut of a story, derived from a 1952 news item. On November 24, 1952, Michel Portail, a petty criminal, stole a car belonging to a Greek diplomat, shot a policeman and hid for almost two weeks in Paris until caught; he was turned in by his American journalist girlfriend, and after a trial, given a life sentence. Truffaut had wanted to do it in 1956. Now he agreed to write the story – the basis for a script – for Godard.
Truffaut's outline was a derivative of film noir, with a pursuit plot and subordinate romance. Godard turned this inside out and soaked it in his own obsessive concerns to do with women and sex and mortality. “It is a film about a boy who thinks about death,” he said. Godard pushed the cop story to the outer edges and centered the action on the bickering playfulness between boy and girl. Godard cast Jean-Paul Belmondo as Michel Poiccard and American Jean Seberg, a one-time Hollywood ingénue who had latterly been thumped by the critics for her performances in Saint Joan and Bonjour Tritesse, as Patricia, the fugitives' girlfriend who ultimately betrays him.
During production, Godard gleefully embraced his lack of 'professional' technique; his on-set direction, deliberately oblique and obscure, pushed cinematographer Raoul Coutard, who was shooting in black-and-white, to 'find' the film in the moment. Godard disregarded conventions that would make the action 'seamless'. Each morning he wrote the script for that day's shooting. The immediate, somewhat dazed and 'real' performances, later mythologised as 'improvised', came out of the fact that Belmondo and Seberg did not have time to learn their lines properly. And since the entire film was post-synced, Godard would often mutter direction during a take. Once in post-production, the film was deemed too long. Godard's friend, director Jean Pierre Melville, suggested cutting anything that held up the action and another Breathless myth was born: Godard and editor Cecile Decugis introduced the jump cut at random. But according to film scholars, this isn't true at all. Breathless feels free-form, but says Brody, Godard and Decugis were consciously, deliberately and carefully strategic in the cuts which hacked out what the director deemed 'dead'. What remained alive were the fragments of Michael and Patricia's unloving, fractious love affair and a sense that Godard was confronting a form (and an audience) with its own smug indifference to a set of cinematic conventions that had grown stale.
It's a half-remembered fact now, but Breathless was famous before any audience had a chance to see it and Godard was ordained a star director. Brody argues that part of that was certainly Godard's sophisticated understanding of how best to hype a film. But Breathless, with its torrid sexual politics and hip characters, seemed plugged into the moment in ways that few films ever are. In January 1960, two months before the film opened in Paris (in first-run theatres not art houses), Godard won the Jean Vigo prize, “to encourage an auteur of the future”. That year, Fellini's La Dolce Vita was the Cannes winner and Billy Wilder's The Apartment won the Oscar; both pictures important and daring in certain ways. But Breathless was, well, new.
The film was a hit and one of the few the Nouvelle Vague was ever to produce. Positif, the serious left-wing film journal, condemned it as “rightist”; but, in general, the reviews were full of astonished praise and unlike many a landmark picture, Breathless' import seemed understood by many as both cinema and as cultural phenomena: “Old cinema and new cinema now have meaning,” observed one critic, “with Breathless the generation gap can now be felt.”
The historical basis of this article owes much to Everything is Cinema, The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard by Richard Brody, Holt, 2008.
French Classics Season
Sunday August 5, 10:45pm
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Starring:Brigitte Bardot, Jack Palance, Michel Piccoli
Sunday August 12, 10:45pm
Belle de Jour (1967)
Director: Luis Buñuel
Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Jean Sorel, Michel Piccoli
Sunday August 19, 10:30pm
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Starring: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg, Henri-Jacques Huet
Sunday August 26, 10:45pm
Director: Jules Dassin
Starring: Jean Servais, Carl Möhner, Robert Manuel