A small-time crook, Michel, who we initially see stealing a car in Marseille, shoots a policeman. On the run in Paris he spends time with a casual girlfriend, Patricia, an American trying to make her way in journalism. She eventually betrays him to the police and he is shot and killed while trying to flee.
In terms of story content, this film is very straightforward; we simply view the last few days in the life of a small-time criminal in Paris. But, the narrative with which we are presented is rather fragmented and disjointed; certainly it lacks the lean narrative drive and the meticulously mapped plot structure of a Hollywood production. The viewer feels she is observing something more like a simple slice of life. A scene in a small studio flat between Patricia and Michel meanders its way between the light horseplay of lovers and deeper philosophical musings with little or no sense of drama or heightened urgency. And when we reach the ending it is conclusive and yet inconclusive, things remain ambiguous and uncertain rather than finally resolved. À bout de souffle is, therefore, particularly in the context of the period in which it was made, a challenge to both the individual reader and the mainstream cinema establishment.1
Godard outlined his attitude in preparing for the film in an interview in Cahiers du Cinema in 1962:
“I said to myself: there has already been Bresson, we just had Hiroshima, a certain kind of cinema has just ended – well, then, let’s put the final period to it: let’s show that anything goes.” (Andrew 1987: 173)
And so we have a film that uses location shooting rather than studio sets, available light rather than studio lighting, direct sound rather than dubbed sound, and allows things forbidden in mainstream cinema such as speech direct to camera. In addition, the dialogue tends towards being rambling, repetitive, and apparently inconsequential rather than tightly honed and narrative-driven; the camerawork aims to be fluid, mobile and handheld rather than steady and more obviously carefully set up; and, in the editing, jump cuts not only draw attention to the process but also result in noticeable abrupt dislocations of time or place.
Beyond these technical elements, we are presented with a film that is happy to mix aspects of various genres and depends on an almost postmodern knowingness on the part of the reader. Primarily, the film grows out of film noir but with a strong awareness of other gangster movies, and a streak of black comedy that derives from the theatre of the absurd: a moment such as that in which Patricia closes her eyes and says, ‘I’m trying to shut them very hard so that everything goes black. But I can’t manage to. It’s never completely black,’ could come straight from a play by Samuel Beckett. The actions that take place often seem rather arbitrary, so that they dislocate any sense of a smooth cause and effect chain of events; and there is a lack of any clear goal orientation with characters apparently drifting aimlessly and acting on the spur of the moment. Again, these aspects exist in relation to lived experience while at the same time commenting on the normally taken for granted aspects of mainstream film narrative. Similarly, the representation of the central female character, although in some sense giving us a traditional femme fatale portrayal also displays a new, liberated woman who is challenging gender stereotypes.
There is, in all of this, an obvious fascination with American culture and in particular Hollywood, but there is also a determination to examine modern society and scrutinise human experience, particularly in relation to emerging youth culture and traditionally accepted social values, and a joyous enthusiasm for contradicting conventional cinematic norms at every available opportunity. This is a film that sets itself up as a popular movie but contains, easily (rather than uneasily) within its knowing address to film fans, a constant stream of highbrow literary and artistic references alongside challenging philosophical thoughts.
Contained within the film is the realisation that challenging the various elements of mainstream cinema will also inevitably result in a questioning of received notions of what life is actually like. Ultimately, what this amounts to is that it is never the case outside of Hollywood-style cinema that the problems, confusions and uncertainties of life are resolved, or resolvable, in any clear-cut way. The component parts, of what maybe we can describe as the French New Wave approach as initially conceived, come together to continually undercut the reader’s expectations and thereby demand thoughtful reader participation in the filmic process. It might be said that as an audience we are reminded that film can soothe and comfort in a way that promotes a lack of thought, or it can be disconcerting and uncomfortable in a way that encourages reflection and debate.
Our central characters, Michel and Patricia, are distinctive individuals and yet they are also used by Godard as in some sense representative of everyman and everywoman. Patricia is, beyond this, also the ‘new woman’ of the period with her cropped hair, no bra and socks. Both are presented as determinedly independent and yet, contained within that, they are also the opposite, isolated and alone. We are returned time and again to the complex, problematic concept of love and, in particular, whether it is possible to move beyond the self in this context.
Questions form the very heart of the position in which Godard places us as a reader of his film. Film-related questions, such as: Is Michel a hero, or anti-hero, or, are such terms simply not appropriate for this film? Questions about human nature, such as: What is the nature of male/female sexuality? Little questions about small details that somehow feel important, such as: Why does Michel shoot at the sun? Perhaps the main question placed before us is whether Michel has any control over what happens to him, or whether he is simply the victim of fate.
One of the most interesting things is that we never really know when either of the central characters is telling the truth, when they are themselves (whatever that might mean) and when they are playing (or trying out) a role. Where does the Bogart-inspired performance end and Michel begin? Or, is the performance Michel? To what extent is Patricia playing a series of roles? Is she no more than a succession of poses? Are we each just a series of masks? ‘I want to know what’s behind your face,’ says Patricia to Michel; and then, a little later, ‘We’re looking into each other’s eyes and it’s useless.’
Faced with the novelist, William Faulkner’s choice between grief and nothing (posed in The Wild Palms2 ), Michel defiantly (heroically?) says he would choose nothingness. (‘Grief is idiotic; I’d choose nothingness. It’s not any better, but grief, it’s a compromise.’) Jean-Paul Sartre’s Existentialism and Humanism was published in 1948 and his Being and Nothingness in 1956. The philosophy of existentialism put forward in these works sees wo/man not as the victim of fate or destiny but as the embodiment of freedom. The wo/man who defines herself, or himself, as a victim of fate renders herself, or himself, an object. According to Sartre, ‘Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself’ (1982: 28). Explaining the same point a little further, he says, ‘Life is nothing until it is lived; but it is yours to make sense of, and the value of it is nothing else but the sense that you choose’ (ibid: 54).
To what extent could we say Michel is the victim of fate and to what extent does he exert freedom of choice in deciding his destiny? Certainly, À bout de souffle could be seen as investigating this freedom problematic. But there is another concept that recurs in Godard’s script and that is the idea of ‘sadness’, and the two seem to be linked: ‘I don’t know if I’m unhappy because I’m not free, or if because I’m not free I’m unhappy,’ says Patricia. Is the individual at the mercy of life, or does she have the potential to assert herself even in the face of seemingly overwhelming external forces? Around this time, Godard was very clear that the key question was to do with ‘engagement’ with life. In an article in Arts in 1960, he says, ‘Catholicism and Marxism, they’re the same thing: it’s just a matter of how you are engaged in life. À bout de souffle is a film about the necessity of engagement’ (Andrew 10 1987: 168). If Godard’s central character, Michel, is a hero, he is perhaps a hero of consciousness.
And, engagement within the field of consciousness is what Godard also seeks to make available to the viewer. His effort is to create and maintain a critical, analytical distance between the spectator and the action. Instinctively, he wishes to transform the spectator from a consumer of the text into a producer of the text, and thereby to question the institution of mainstream cinema. Dominant cinema attempts to fix the spectator in a comfortably escapist relationship with the text: Godard attempts to make the spectator aware of, and therefore part of, the process that is the construction of meaning. The ‘action’ is interrupted by captions, slogans, book covers and poster art, there are digressions and other disorientations, and in this way the apparently seamless representation of the world of the classic realist text is brought into question. According to Robert Lapsley and Michael Westlake, ‘Confronted by the contradictions of the Godardian text the spectator is constantly required to work on its meanings, required to produce meaning’ (1992: 195).
Godard, we might note, did not prepare a complete script in advance but wrote day by day as filming was progressing. He tended, during this period, to film chronologically with actors often not knowing until each morning’s filming what lines they were to deliver. Bertolt Brecht saw traditional theatre as encouraging unconscious participation in the progression of the narrative and worked to create a thinking, engaged audience. Godard would seem to be following the same trajectory in film. Although he would later see his work before 1968 as being stamped by the mindset of the bourgeois intellectual, Godard does, it seems, want to create an audience that is asking itself, ‘Why did this happen in this way?’ rather than simply being driven by the desire to know, ‘And what happens next?’
Having said all of this, it is true that Godard’s New Wave work is focused more on individual characters than the sweep of history. Furthermore, in the context of what was to emerge in Paris in 1968 it might seem incredible that just a few years earlier there is little or no reference to contemporary French politics, despite the fact that this was a time of tension and social upheaval both at home and in the various French colonies.
1. Peter Wollen (in Readings and Writings, London, Verso, 1982) identified seven central differences between what has been termed countercinema and mainstream cinema: narrative continuity is disrupted by interruptions, digressions and an absence of apparent contradictions; identification is challenged, for instance by having actors directly address the audience; attention is drawn to the film process as a construction of meaning; spatial and temporal continuity is broken making the text composite, contradictory, and plural; an open rather than closed text is created where a variety of conflicting voices makes authorial intention uncertain; a collective working relationship between filmmaker and audience is created rather than Hollywood pleasure; fictional representation is exposed as an illusion.
2. William Faulkner, The Wild Palms, London, Vintage, 2000, p. 273 (‘Yes, he thought, between grief and nothing I will take grief’).
Cast and Crew:
[Country: France. Production Company: Les Productions Georges de Beauregard. Director and Screenwriter: Jean-Luc Godard (story from Francois Truffaut). Cinematographer: Raoul Coutard. Music: Martial Solal. Cast: Jean-Paul Belmondo (Michel Poiccard/Laszlo Kovacs), Jean Seberg (Patricia Franchini), Daniel Boulanger (Police Inspector Vital), Jean-Pierre Melville (Parvulesco).]
Dudley Andrew (ed.), Breathless, New Brunswick, NJ, Rutgers University Press, 1987.
Robert Lapsley and Michael Westlake, Film Theory: An Introduction, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1992.
Jean Paul Sartre, Existentialism and Humanism, London, Methuen, 1982.
Colin MacCabe, Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy, New York, Faber & Faber, 2005.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.