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Breathless (A bout de souffle)

22 May

Although I felt ashamed of it at one time, I do like A bout de souffle very much, but now I see where it belongs – along with Alice in Wonderland. I though it was Scarface.

– Jean-Luc Godard, 1962

Imagine an alternate title for Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960) – Hopeless. Hopelessly rebelling, hopelessly craving for attention and to the very end, hopelessly romantic. These descriptions apply as much to the characters and the story itself as they do to the way the movie was made. Contradiction is perhaps another word that befits Breathless and Godard’s idea of cinema. Seemingly adolescent in conception and execution, Breathless attempts a radical departure from classical Hollywood cinematic conventions while at the same time portraying a thoroughly classical Hollywood film noir story with her standard-issued cops and robbers and femme fatale. The hero in Breathless is Michel Poiccard, a rascally Parisian who makes a living being a stealer of cars, seducer of women, and an all-around shady character with many connections in the city but few friends he can count on. Michel steals a car in Marseilles and drives it to Paris. On his way, Michel is stopped for speeding and shoots a pursuing policeman. In Paris, he needs to collect some money from a friend and meets up with an American girl, Patricia Franchini. One third of the movie is shot in Patricia’s hotel room, while Michel tries to convince her to sleep with him and to run away with him to Italy. He convinces her of the former, but when the latter becomes a definite possibility, she turns him in to the police. Instead of running away, Michel decides to face the police and go to prison. However, when the policemen arrive, a friend of Michel’s throws him a gun in a last attempt to save him. The policemen panic and shoot him.

The story is based on a scenario by the director Francois Truffaut, one of Godard’s colleagues. It was in the late 1940s that Godard became a regular at the Paris Cinematheque and various Left Bank film clubs. There he met Andre Bazin, editor of the journal Cahier du cinema and other future filmmakers such as Jacques Rivette, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer and Truffaut (Bordwell and Thompson 465). Film historians would later anoint these individuals as the standard-bearers of the “French New Wave” movement of the 1960s. The Cahiers influence is essential to the way Godard approached the stylistic elements in Breathless and all of his later works. Bazin, an influential film critic and theorist, firmly believed in the idea that realism is the essence of cinema. This runs counter to the view championed by such influential theorists and directors like Sergei Eisenstein and Rudolf Arnheim of the “Soviet School” (Sterritt 4). These Russian critics believed less in the cinema’s ability to recreate the real world than from the filmmakers’ ability to manipulate visual elements to conjure up powerful emotions in the audience. Bazin, on the other hand, contended that it was a director’s job to reproduce reality faithfully. In accordance to this view, Bazin’s favorite films included dramas by the Italian “neo-realists” and also movies by American directors such as Orson Welles whose deep-focus cinematography leaves the bulk of editing and, thus interpretation for the audience.

This might seem contradictory to the jump cuts and other non-continuity editing techniques so widely noted in Breathless and many of Godard’s other works. Bazin’s idea of realism did have a deep impact on Godard and his contemporaries. However, unlike the Bazin and the Italian Neo-realists, Godard and his contemporaries sought a new kind of realism – a realism that acknowledges the fact that cinema is in fact cinema (Sterritt 6). In other word, they were less interested at recreating the real world but rather to demonstrate that the elements of film itself (most notably editing in Breathless) can be as real and as enjoyable as its narrative and visual contents. Hence the overall style of Breathless – the refreshing combination of the self-conscious act of storytelling, vividly real portrayal of the city and the non-conventional cinematic techniques employed in the movie.

In addition to reaching for a new form of realism, the young “New Wave” directors, grown up in the post-war Hollywood-centric mass media culture, were consciously trying to break away from the studio norm of film style and production. As described by the film historian David Bordwell, the “classical Hollywood style” consists of a coterie of principles and practices employed by major Hollywood studio since the 1920s. Their major characteristics include: “invisible editing” that calls minimal attention to itself, three-point lighting that enhances clarity and visibility of subjects, synchronized sound that supports the visual and unambiguous dialogue for ease of understanding. The common purpose behind all these conventions is to reduce the audience’s awareness of the filmmaking process and thus, enhances the suspension of disbelief and creates the illusion that reality is unfolding before the screen. In other words, classical filmmakers are like puppeteers who wants us to forget the string pulling and all the behind the scene work, while Godard is the counter-culture puppeteer/artist who keeps waving at us from the back, using extra-thick strings and self-consciously imitating other puppet shows at the same time.

The result of all these is obvious in Breathless, a profoundly self-aware and unapologetically artificial movie. Editing is not only visible but sometimes even disruptive and aggressive, images dance to the sound of gun shots and bongo drums, jumping in time without a corresponding change in space, constantly trying to steal the limelight away from the characters and the plot. Lighting is totally natural, without adhering the studio convention. Godard and cinematographer Raoul Coutard decided not to add artificial light in the settings (Bordwell and Thompson 402). The character’s faces sometimes become silhouettes in the dark because of the contrast of bright sunlight and low indoors lighting. Diegetic and non-diegetic sounds vie for attention – at one point during Michel and Patricia’s conversation in her hotel room, an ambulance blare is so loud that it almost completely drowns their voices (Bordwell and Thompson 402). As a result of the usage of these techniques, the movie seems at times “amateurish”. However, precisely because of this off-the-cuff quality, Breathless is able to attain a heightened sense of realism, both physically and psychologically – something that can only be hitherto achieved through an unrehearsed documentary. Godard himself had noted, shortly before Breathless went into production that “great fiction films tend towards documentary, just as … great documentaries tend towards fiction … he who opts wholeheartedly for one, necessarily finds the other at the end of his journey.” (Sterritt 56) Immediacy, authenticity and spontaneity, are qualities that Andre Bazin would no doubt have credited Godard for in his contribution to realism in cinema.

The most widely discussed innovative stylistic element in Breathless is the use of jump cuts – those impetuous jump cuts that replace Hollywood style continuity editing at key moments of the story (e.g. killing of the pursuing policeman). Sometimes these jump cuts propel the film’s action from one episode to the next, denying any smooth transitions provided by classical film editing. At other time, they wipe out individual frames of an otherwise continuous scene, giving it a new edgy energy (e.g. when Michel talks to his old girlfriend in her apartment and steals her money). The usage of jump cuts was a major faux pas for the strict adherents of continuity editing techniques. This was such an entrenched belief at the time that Breathless was made that it raised the question as to the competent of Godard as a filmmaker (Sterritt 8).

Other than being a pure impulse to rebel against the classical film editing conventions, a number of theories have arisen to explain the prevalence of the jump cuts in Breathless. Jan Speckenbach has provided some interesting theories concerning the socio-economic causes contributing to the general emergence of the jump cuts in the 1960s, especially its popularity amongst the French New Wave. First, Speckenbach contends that the jump cut is a side effect of the emerging and rapidly dominating television and commercial culture of the time (Speckenbach 6). Television, especially with respect to TV commercials, was presenting anything interesting on screen, without caring for narrative continuity. It was jumping from one theme to another, from one style to the next, from one image to the following image. The cinema’s response to this new audio-visual cacophony of senseless movements, non-continual presentation was the use of jump cuts. Of course, the usage of jump cuts was only conceivable outside the mainstream Hollywood studio production system. This leads to Speckenbach’s second explanation for the rise of jump cuts. He argues that the arrival of new technologies, specifically the 16mm handheld camera, allows for the “dilettantisation” of the production of film (Speckenbach 7). It allows amateurs and independent filmmakers to experiment with various non-standard production and post-production techniques for the first time in film history. In Breathless for example, a handheld Arriflex camera was used. One scene was shot with a camera along with its operator hidden in a mail cart, others from a wheelchair in which the cinematographer Coutard was whisked around by Godard (Bordwell and Thompson 402).

Other historians have looked at the use of jump cuts in Breathless not from a wider socio-economic perspective but from a more practical, production limitation viewpoint. Richard Raskin proposed three such theories, none of them are too flattering on Godard. He contents that the jump cuts are 1) a deliberate attempt on Godard’s part to ruin the film in order to get even with a producer who had insisted that the film be shortened despite Godard’s protests; 2) a devious attempt on Godard’s part to save a third-rate film by altering it in a way French film critics would perceive as astounding; 3) a real desire on Godard’s part to shorten a film (in a new way) that was made too long in the first place due to inexperience.

The aesthetic functions and meanings of the jump cuts in Breathless are perhaps more tangible than their true origin. Superlatives have often been associated with the effects of these jump cuts. For example, some see them as bringing Cubism into the cinema while others compare Godard’s elliptical editing to the improvisational quality found in jazz (Raskin). Ultimately, most critics can agree that the jump cuts quicken the tempo of movie and serves as a cinematic expression of the carefree, out-of-control spirits of the characters it portrays. As Bosley Crowther commented, the jump cuts are appropriate for a film in which “there is subtly conveyed a vastly complex comprehension of an element of youth that is vagrant, disjointed, animalistic and doesn’t give a damn for anybody or anything, not even itself.” (Raskin) This explains the famous jump cut of the scene in which Michel shoots the policeman. This event itself is incidental and is of little or no interest to the anti-hero. This is why Godard represents it almost carelessly and even unintelligibly. As Michel seems dimly aware of this when he observes, with all the fatalistic coolness of his movie-star hero Humphrey Bogart, that “squealers squeal, burglars burgle, killers kill, lovers love”. Robert Bresson himself would not have put it better.

Through the storyline and the use of non-continuity editing techniques (above all the jump cuts) in Breathless, Godard shows us a world that is immoral, senseless and empty – hopeless. Everything lacks a reason: “Why do you want to make love to me?” asks Patricia in the bedroom scene. “Because you’re beautiful.” Michel replies. “But I’m not beautiful.” argues Patricia. “OK, then because you’re ugly.” Michel is the only character who is able to recognize and take advantage of the situation by being amoral and uncommitted while simultaneously maintaining his joie de vive and cheerfulness. He is sensitive to his environment. He likes the sun, he likes the countryside France, and he is depressed by ugly architecture. Michel invents his life and his past as he goes along. He imagines himself to be and imitates the movie gangsters, claims that his grandfather drove a Rolls, he says he can only stay at the Claridge (a very expensive hotel), he says his father was a clarinetist, among other stories. But unlike other characters in the movie, Michel isn’t caught up in the seriousness of searching for meaning. Furthermore, he is unafraid of the ultimate nothingness: death. The omnipresence of death makes his actions more poignant and intense. It was Godard’s aim in making a film where “anything goes” (Ruspoli). He came very close to succeeding in Breathless, both narratively and in stylistically.

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