It is useless to pretend that human creatures find their contentment in repose. What they require is action, and they will create it if it is not offered by life. - Charlotte Bronte, quoted by Jean-Luc Godard, 1952
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 thought it was Scarface. -Jean-Luc Godard, 1962
Godard's first feature traveled to English-speaking countries as Breathless, a suitably snappy title for a speedy, jazzed-up picture that hops to the rhythm of gunshots, bongo drums, and the on-the-run life-style of its hero. Its French title, A bout de souffle, points to a different meaning, however: being winded, maybe exhausted, or even at the end of breath, as the hero literally is when he collapses in the street at the end of his ultimately fatal career. Of course it's a jaunty title, but it's also an ironic, ambivalent one. In any case, it helped launch the picture - and Godard's feature filmmaking career - with a roar that still reverberates. Breathless remains his most widely known and frequently seen work.
The story is based on a scenario by Francois Truffaut, a few pages long and providing a reasonably close outline of the finished film. The hero is Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a rascally Parisian who makes his living as a stealer of cars, seducer of women, and all-around rogue with lots of connections but few friends on whom he can depend in a crisis.
His first act in the movie is to hot-wire a car, then drive off with hardly a backward glance at the woman who helped him pull off the job. Taking a casual joyride through the countryside, he chatters away to himself - and to us, breaking classical film's strict rule against acknowledging the camera - when he isn't playing with a pistol he's found in the glove compartment. Chased by motorcycle cops for speeding, he dodges them by pulling off the road, but gets spotted when he leaves the car to restart its engine.
"Don't move or I'll shoot," says Michel, who has a flair for melodrama and a taste for cliches; but there's nothing cliched about the way Godard's camera shoots him shooting the cop: sliding down his arm to his hand, caressing the gun's slowly revolving chamber and implacably aimed barrel, cutting to the cop's falling body just as the shot rings out, then to a distant overhead view as Michel runs frantically away. Michel is clearly a man who breaks the rules when he feels like it - and so is Godard, whose innovative style made its debut with those extreme close-ups of Michel's gun followed by the manic jump cut to his getaway, seen in (alienating) long shot just when an ordinary filmmaker would have used (emotion-filled) close-ups to build the psychological identification that Godard has generally found too easy and manipulative for comfort. Back in the city, Michel gives us further glimpses of his personality and predilections: stealing from another girlfriend while her back is turned, hunting for a pal who owes him the money he needs to get out of town, playing cat and mouse with two Paris cops trying to solve the Route 7 murder he committed. Most important, he goes to the Champs-Elysees and romances Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg), a young American who studies at the Sorbonne and hopes to become a writer for the New York Herald Tribune, which she sells on the boulevard for pocket money. Michel makes no effort to hide his infatuation with her, but her commitment to their affair is obviously uncertain. They stroll in a lengthy traveling shot while he declares his love, complains about his troubles in Paris, and asks her to move to Rome with him when he collects his debt. She also talks about money, saying she needs her college-student status to keep her family's financial support rolling in; but mainly she banters with her boyfriend and fills the screen with sunny charm. Godard appears to be as entranced with Seberg as Michel is with the character she plays.
Still, the atmosphere is not all romance and repartee. Immediately after they part, Michel walks past a movie poster that reminds us of his reckless side: "Live dangerously until the end!" it shouts, underscored by a brassy chord on the sound track. When a pedestrian gets struck by a car nearby, Michel joins the crowd leaning over his body, gazes at him intently, and crosses himself as he walks thoughtfully away, possibly thinking of his own close acquaintance with mortality. "The future. I'm interested in it," he had told Patricia a little earlier, complaining that the Tribune printed no horoscope. His uneasiness and superstition seem justified, given the instability he courts with his criminal ways. During his next date with Patricia he excuses himself long enough to violently rob a harmlesslooking man in the men's room of a club, then regales her with a tabloidworthy tale about a lawless couple. She listens with enough concentration to reveal her own interest in breaking society's rules. She also aims a bit of petty meanness toward Michel, publicly kissing an American journalist who might be valuable to her career.
Later scenes reinforce the impressions of Michel and Patricia given by the film's first part. He dodges the police dragnet that closes in ever more tightly; implores Patricia for love, companionship, and sex; and tracks down the money-owing friend he's convinced is his passport to a clean getaway and a better tomorrow. She hangs out with Michel in her apartment; covers a press conference with a famous novelist; does her own detective dodging when the police connect her with Michel; and announces that she is pregnant, seeming genuinely upset when Michel receives the news with a shrug of annoyance. Later she caves in with surprising speed (or maybe not so surprising, after the pregnancy scene) when a cop confronts her and demands her cooperation. Still more surprising is her abrupt decision to phone the police and reveal Michel's whereabouts. Returning to the borrowed apartment they've been hiding in, she tells him of her betrayal, and he responds with a mixture of anger, exasperation, and fatigue. "I'm beat anyway and I just want to sleep," he tells the friend who finally shows up with his money. Soon afterward the detective guns Michel down, and he staggers up the street as if trying to escape - or catch? - the death now looming in his path.
Michel expires in the middle of one last misunderstanding, trivial in itself yet important since it makes English-speaking watchers of the movie more confused than the French-speaking characters in the movie. "It's really disgusting," Michel says with his dying breath, using words ("C'est vraiment degueulasse") that clearly refer to the situation in which he and Patricia have landed; yet the film's English subtitles translate his sentence as, "You are .. . really ..., " suggesting a final insult aimed at the woman who caused this tragedy. Patricia has needed help with her French more than once during the movie, and although the word "degeuelasse" has run like a motif through the film's dialogue, she asks a stranger to translate Michel's dying words. "He said, 'You are really a little bitch,'" the stranger replies, taking the meaning from "degueulasse" (as if he had read the misleading subtitle!) that would apply had Michel used it as a noun instead of an adjective. More accurately in this case, the word means "disgusting" and even "sickening," with a hint of the "nausea" that Jean-Paul Sartre evoked in describing his existentialist view of the human condition. Michel is not insulting Patricia alone. He is reviling all that has brought them to this sorry state.
The film's ending is a richly ironic coda to a tale of star-crossed lovers with an utter inability to get their signals straight. Michel dies after closing his eyes with his own hand; Patricia gazes into the camera and mumbles, "A little what? I don't understand"; and the screen fades to black as she turns her pertly coiffed head away from us, the filmmakers, and everything that's happened in the past ninety minutes. (Godard originally wanted Patricia to rifle through Michel's pockets, but in a strikingly Patricialike move, Seberg refused to carry this out.) The finale remains rich even with the garbled subtitling, but it has an extra layer of perplexity for moviegoers who share Patricia's imperfect grasp of her boyfriend's lingo.
Writing some twenty years after Breathless was released, a critic observed that one of the "remarkable" things about Godard's work had always been "its closeness to the contemporary moment." Although some later films would stray from this principle, it is generally true of Godard's career, beginning with his first feature-length production.
Breathless was filmed in 1959, an eventful year for French society. On the political front, agitation continued to flow from Algeria's anticolonial war, leading French President Charles de Gaulle to offer a peace plan based on the prospect of (conveniently delayed) independence if Algerian voters approved it four years after hostilities ended. In mass communications, the number of television sets in France reached 1.5 million, behind West Germany and way behind Britain but still in step with Europe's increasingly televisual culture. Elsewhere on the cultural spectrum, playwright Jean Anouilh finished Becket; or, The Honor of God, contributing to the antiauthoritarian rumbling that would gather strength in coming years. In film, Alain Resnais made his feature debut with the strikingly fresh Hiroshima mon amour, from a script by experimental novelist Marguerite Duras; more important still, Truffaut brought his first major production - The 400 Blows, a loosely autobiographical tale about growing up absurd on the streets of Paris - to the hugely prestigious Cannes International Film Festival, where he walked away with the coveted Best Director award, instantly making himself and his New Wave friends significant players in world cinema.
Still, as busy as France was at the tail end of the 1950s, the eyes of Godard and his colleagues were also fixed on the United States, thanks to their ongoing fascination with Hollywood and American popular culture. Without question, 1959 was a noteworthy year on that side of the ocean too. Edward Albee's short play The Zoo Story helped bring avant-garde expressionism to popular attention in theater, just as the opening of Frank Lloyd Wright's audacious Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum did in architecture. Robert Rauschenberg gave a major impetus to pop art with Monogram, perhaps the most influential of his collagelike "combine paintings." The sexually frank novel Lady Chatterley's Lover, by British author D. H. Lawrence, reached American printing presses some thirty years after authorities had banned it for obscenity. Even more pungently, Beat Generation writer William S. Burroughs completed his Naked Lunch, bringing a radically disjunctive style to drugged-up subject matter that mainstream publishers would have found unthinkable a few years earlier. A more prolific Beat author, Jack Kerouac, virtually flooded the market with significant works, from the Evergreen Review essay "Belief & Technique for Modern Prose" to the major novel Doctor Sax; or, Faust Fart Three, the minor novel Maggie Cassidy, and the epic poetry cycle Mexico City Blues.
All the while, directors lauded by the New Wave group were filling movie screens, making expansive use of their mature talents under the new expressive freedom made available by the continuing breakdown of Production Code censorship rules. A few examples will suffice: Howard Hawks's Rio Bravo; Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest; Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life; Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder; John Ford's The Horse Soldiers; Budd Boetticher's Ride Lonesome and Westbound; new pictures by Vincente Minnelli, Samuel Fuller, and Frank Tashlin; and the extraordinary Suddenly Last Summer by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who had been the subject of one of Godard's first articles in the short-lived Gazette du cinema at the beginning of the decade.
Godard wrote more about French films than Hollywood productions in 1959, and his ten-best list is French from start to finish. Nevertheless, he did find time to praise Sirk, applaud Anthony Mann, and give Blake Edwards a mild pat on the back in articles for Cahiers and Arts; and his general interest in American film remained strong, as his next ten-best list showed by including Hollywood pictures from Hitchcock, Nicholas Ray, Stanley Donen, and Fritz Lang. Explaining the Cahiers group's predisposition toward American film, critic Jim Hillier cites "the ways in which American cinema was perceived to relate to American society: it was, often enough, socially 'critical,' but critical without being directly 'political,'" a position many French artists found appealing. He also notes film historian Thomas Elsaesser's observation that French intellectuals looked to American culture for "works of fiction that could serve as creative models, representative of their own situation and embodying specifically modern tensions - between intellect and emotion, action and reflection, consciousness and instinct, choice and spontaneity."
These were prominent among the tensions that preoccupied Godard, and they were chief obsessions of an American group so journalistically notorious by 1959 that Godard must have been aware of it: the aforementioned Beat Generation, a band of authors, poets, and cultural provocateurs whose influences ranged from American literature and Asian religion to France's powerful existentialist movement and, more modestly, the French movies loved by Kerouac ever since his French-Canadian upbringing in a New England town. I have written about the Beats elsewhere,7 and I invoke them here not to reindulge a personal interest but to suggest that an awareness of the Beat sensibility - a way of thinking, feeling, and being that fascinated European as well as American artists - provides important clues to the making of Breathless and its galvanizing impact on international cinema. Although he has not referred specifically to the Beats in his comments on the film, Godard's sympathy with the directness and spontaneity embodied by their work shines through numerous remarks he made during this period - in 1962, for instance, when he praised American screenwriters for employing "the kind of simplicity that brings depth." American filmmakers "are real and natural," he went on, adding that his compatriots "must find the French attitude as [Americans] have found the American attitude. To do so, one must begin by talking about things one knows.... Filming should be a part of living, something normal and natural," full of "seeking, improvising, experimenting" rather than a "mental departmentalizing [that] also corresponds to a departmentalization of social truths."
Like these words, Breathless bristles with the Beat spirit, which had reached a peak of fame and influence at precisely the time when Godard set to work on his film. Of all the writers who developed and promoted that spirit, Kerouac was the one most directly in sync with Godard's artistic personality. I am not suggesting that Godard was directly influenced by Kerouac, and there is no clear evidence that he had read Kerouac's books or articles. However, both were iconoclastic thinkers with a zest for experience and ideas; both were impatient with the 1950s mindset of conservatism, consensus, and conformity; and both sought release from this questionable Zeitgeist in a torrent of creative activity that challenged sociocultural norms with a charged-up mixture of impulsiveness, irreverence, and flamboyant rejection of common sense.
Central to this attitude was the concept of improvisation. Kerouac had embraced this in the novel that made him famous two years earlier: On the Road, written on long rolls of paper in nonstop bursts of "bop-trance composition." He had then shown its continuing value with The Subterraneans and The Dharma Bums in 1958. Kerouac was so committed to improvisation ("first thought best thought") that he crusaded against all forms of rewriting and revising, even chiding his Beat colleague Allen Ginsberg for correcting the errors made when his fingers slipped on the typewriter keyboard. Behind his quest for spontaneous "wild form" was a conviction that living, thinking, and art making are inseparable from one another, and that only the most unmediated forms of creativity - such as his spontaneous writing and the improvised jazz that often inspired it - can capture the quicksilver flow of lived experience in all its energy, diversity, and mutability.
Godard in 1959 was a somewhat more prudent and methodical artist, but his sympathies leaned in similar directions. The production history and the final form of Breathless bear this out. "I improvise, certainly, but with material which goes a long way back," he said in 1962, managing to endorse spontaneity and preparation at the same time. He is hedging his commitment to in-the-moment creativity here, of course, by acknowledging that his material has undergone much thought before being commited to celluloid; yet even this accords with Kerouac's practice, since the Beat author thought obsessively about events prior to his marathon writing sessions.10 Putting things on paper was the continuation of composition by other means. Ditto for Godard, who saw every aspect of a cineaste's life and work as part of the filmmaking process.
Before the shooting of Breathless began, Godard supplemented Truffaut's scenario with a fully written beginning - featuring Patricia on her Champs-Elysees paper route - and many notes for subsequent scenes. Still worried about his lack of a completed script, he abruptly decided to rely on speed and confidence alone, reasoning that "in a single day, if one knows how to go about it, one should be able to complete a dozen takes. Only instead of planning ahead, I shall invent at the last minute." Thinking of this as "last-minute focusing" rather than full-fledged improvisation, he enlisted his cast as accomplices in the experiment but limited their contribution by filming without sound. This allowed him to supply them with their dialogue, written shortly beforehand, by simply calling it out while the camera rolled; their voices were dubbed in later, synchronized with their lip movements. In a medium far more cumbersome and collaborative than the typewritten page, Godard thus approached Kerouac's ideal of spontaneous authorship, literally speaking the film's words through the mouths of his performers.
The film's quality of off-the-cuff inventiveness was further enhanced by Raoul Coutard's supple cinematography, using a hand-held Arriflex camera rather than "the usual equipment, which would have added three weeks to the schedule," as Godard later noted. One scene was shot with a camera hidden (along with its operator) in a canvas mail cart, others from a wheelchair in which Coutard was whisked around by the director.13 During the postproduction process another innovative element was added: impetuous jump cuts that replace ordinary "continuity editing" at key moments in the story. Sometimes these propel the action precipitately from one episode to another, denying the smooth transitions afforded by classical films. At other times they wipe out individual frames of an otherwise continuous scene, lending it a jagged energy. The director found his unusual filmmaking process "tiring" and even "killing," but in retrospect he justified it on grounds that recall Kerouac's love of immediacy and authenticity. "One feels that if one is sincere and honest and one is driven into a corner over doing something," he observed, referring to the breathless schedule he had set for himself, "the result will necessarily be sincere and honest."
Breathless shares the Beat sensibility in content as well as form. Michel may not be a beatnik, but he has many features of a closely related type: the hipster, defined by a 1950s journalist as "an enfant terrible turned inside out," and by author Norman Mailer as "the American existentialist" who knows that in a culture threatened with extinction by war, oppression, or conformity, "the only life-giving answer is to accept the terms of death, to live with death as immediate danger, to divorce oneself from society, to live without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self." This certainly sounds like Michel, who has had an excellent relationship with his rebellious imperatives since long before we met him. He accepts death's terms not in the self-conscious style of a Hollywood hero but in the casual, taken-for-granted manner of a loner whose divorce from society is so complete he may never have realized there was a choice about the matter. Thrusting away the constricting comforts and strait jacketing safety of bourgeois life, he courts instability, precariousness, and the everyday possibility of disaster as fecklessly as any jived-up hustler in any neon-flashing city of the postwar world. Although he talks a great deal, a trait shared by most Godard characters, Michel expresses his ever-shifting states of mind less through words than through gestures, body language, and a general inability to remain still. In keeping with his peripatetic nature, he shares Kerouac's view of automobiles as allies in the self-propelled movement from stifling rootedness to exhilarating liberty. His story can be traced through the cars he steals, uses, and abandons in the naive belief that freedom is a matter of physical transit - if he can just get his money and zoom to Italy, everything will be all right - rather than difficult options like political struggle and spiritual regeneration, which Godard will explore in later works.
There is a sad and touching quality to Michel's unexamined faith that a different place will bring a different life. This idea has animated great migrations in the past, but it breathed its last during the 1950s, when unexplored space finally ran out and modern geography confirmed that no location on earth has some exotic property that can transform the self in ways once fantasized by Beats, hipsters, and other romantic go-getters. Michel doesn't realize this ideal is dead, and his ingenuousness helps win our affection, or at least our commiseration, despite his sometimes malevolent behaviors. Something similar goes for Kerouac's roadrunners, who are rarely models of social responsibility, and for some of Hollywood's most enduring characters - Norman Bates in Hitchcock's Psycho, for example, who elicits our sympathy through the apparent artlessness of his personality. Michel belongs in their company. So childlike is his pursuit of Patricia's love, so unavailing are his encounters with cops and crooks, so transparent are his efforts to present a cool-and-collected image to his lowlife cronies, that one is tempted to empathize with his misadventures and minimize the very real violence he commits, with a nonchalance that would be bone-chilling if the conventions of his movie's genre didn't smooth its edges.
Although he is less bluntly autobiographical than Kerouac often was, Godard also shares the Beat writer's willingness to "talk . . . about things one knows" and invest a story with material familiar from his own life. The tightly wound rhythms and mercurial riffs of Breathless echo Godard's personality as an aggressive young artist who wanted to make "the sort of film where anything goes,"16 and Michel's character - including its more menacing side - draws some of its dark power from the filmmaker's own brushes with this territory. After passing through a "shy and uncharming" adolescence, Godard as late as 1952 was known as a chronic thief (relatives and the Cahiers office were among his targets), a failed homosexual prostitute, and enough of a social misfit to be committed by his father to a psychiatric hospital for what one biographical sketch describes as "a considerable period." Godard had cleaned up his act long before his feature-filmmaking career started - his cameo appearance in Breathless ironically casts him as a nosy passerby who helps the police track Michel down! - but he had lived the downside of hipsterdom that Beat commentator John Clellon Holmes captured when he critically observed (in a quarrel with Mailer's account of hipness) that "the destiny of the nervous system, accumulating Sensation the way Faust's mind accumulated Knowledge, is inexorably violence." To be sure, Godard was never the thug Michel turns into when irritated by the stolen-car dealer he roughs up, tempted by the men's-room visitor he mugs, or - in the explosive moment that thrusts the film into high gear - threatened by the highway cop he kills. However, the filmmaker was neither innocent nor naive with regard to the more sordid possibilities of the free, unfettered life. Breathless acquires its unsettling force from this semi-insider status as well as its freewheeling performances and bold stylistics.
Reflecting different aspects of Godard's personality and imagination, Patricia is many things Michel is not: a woman, a worker, a reader and writer, an American with parents back home and prospects for a respectable future.
In some ways she is a dead ringer for Michel, however, beginning with her penchant for unpredictable acts and her refusal to be defined or delimited by the people around her. Peddling her papers on sunny Parisian afternoons, enrolling in the Sorbonne so her family's checks will keep on coming, juggling romances with men who couldn't be more dissimilar, she has all the appearances of a self-sufficient spirit freely inventing her identity to suit her changing whims. Still, among the things that distinguish her from Michel is a growing realization of something he grasps only in a fitful, semiconscious way: that thought and behavior are functions of each other and our interactions with the world, not of some inner essence that presides over our lives from birth to death.
Common sense generally says otherwise, of course. Each of us has a unique and consistent nature, it tells us, with a coherent set of distinctive properties that last a lifetime, however much they "evolve" and "mature" along the way. We know, however, that Godard is no great friend of common sense, seeing this as a hazy substitute for real analysis and insight; and although he hadn't yet developed his views on this matter in 1959, he had his suspicions. So did some American artists, including social dissidents like Kerouac, who turned to rebellious adventure (e.g., hitting the road) and radical creativity (e.g., bop-trance writing) as escape routes from the traps of consensus-bound thinking. So did some European intellectuals, including existentialist thinkers who aimed particular criticism at the notion of "human nature" as they explored the predicament of sentient beings in a fundamentally absurd universe. Existence precedes essence, they argued, suggesting that our selves are determined by our behaviors - the choices we make and the actions we carry out - rather than the other way around. If we do have a nature, it is not fixed: It is infinitely mutable, precarious, and contingent on the circumstances in which it finds itself.
In addition to being two of the most artfully developed characters in Godard's early work, Michel and Patricia are vivid embodiments of his still-coalescing ideas on this multifaceted subject, which was of urgent interest to many people as the conservative 1950s showed their first tentative signs of giving way to the tumultuous 1960s. Testifying to Godard's thoughtfulness about such existential issues is the fact that these characters represent two different perspectives on them. At issue is the problem of reconciling personal will with existence in a world that is at once intricately social, profoundly subjective, and utterly irrational in the long run. As suggested above, Michel has a groping, instinctive approach to this dilemma, whereas Patricia has a still-embryonic but somewhat more alert position.
We can tell from our first glimpse of Michel's cocky, rakish persona that he sees himself as a confidently free agent with a swinging city at his fingertips, and that he's proud of his ability to cast aside convention and pursue the gratification that's his primary goal in life. The way he sees himself doesn't necessarily mesh with the way the world sees him, but one of the things Godard invites us to like about him is the fact that he doesn't particularly care what society thinks of his inner self, as long as his outer self can keep dancing through the city and having enough gangster-film adventures to distract him from worries about tomorrow. Michel is the first of many Godardian figures who don't know their own minds, or rather, who perceive at least dimly that knowing one's mind is beside the point. This is because a person's consciousness is as much a result as a cause of the things one chooses to do. Then too, the experiential reality of one's mental life may be just tenuously connected with the existential reality traced on the physical world by one's activities. When his interior and exterior lives appear to conflict in some way, Michel takes for granted that authenticity lies not in his own consciousness - split between conflicting motives and priorities, fond of deluding itself along with others - but in the real-world results of what he actually does and says.
To put this in moral terms, truth and fakery are separated by thin and slippery lines, and Michel would rather exploit this fact than think about it. "There's no need to lie," he tells Patricia during their long scene in her bedroom. "Like in poker, the truth is best. The others still think you're bluffing, so you win." Godard seconds this notion by moving his camera from Michel to a drawing mounted on the wall, showing a man (beardless, young) holding a mask (bearded, old) over his face. Continuing the appearance-versus-reality motif a few moments later, Patricia says to Michel, "I want to know what's behind that mask of yours. I've watched you for ten minutes and I see nothing, nothing." She is struck by the gap between her boyfriend's external appearance - hard to ignore, since few faces are more magnetic than Belmondo's in this movie - and the interior psychology that she assumed had shaped this appearance. Indeed, she is beginning to doubt the accessibility and even the relevance of this psychological dimension, at least as a meaningful factor in her relationship with him.
Patricia is in a good position to benefit from this doubt, since she has been spiraling toward the realization that her own existence is defined more by her real-world behaviors than by the unreliable stream of consciousness she carries around inside. More intellectual than Michel, and possessing an intuitiveness more refined than his comparatively gross instinctiveness, she is starting to become authentically aware - and more important, ironically appreciative - of the yawning gulf between the abstractions conjured by her mind and the actualities projected into the social sphere by her voice and body.
"I don't know if I'm unhappy because I'm not free, or if I'm not free because I'm unhappy," she tells the American journalist during their conversation over drinks, signaling a growing sense that her social and individual selves are at once habitually at odds and inextricably bound together, so tightly that they hardly have their own existences. A short while later, she elevates this philosophical glimmer into a behavioral guide. "I stayed to find out if I was in love with you or if I wasn't in love with you," she tells Michel after betraying him to the police. "And because I'm mean to you, it proves I don't love you." Rather than introspectively ponder her feelings - surely the commonsense way of charting one's emotional response to another person - Patricia has acted out her impulses and observed the results with an almost clinical curiosity, seeing the outward manifestations of her behavior as coequal with the "real self" that prompted it. Michel listens to her words with more resignation than rage. These ex-lovers are clearly two of a kind, and in her explanation he hears echoes of his own outlook on life.
In addition to their similarities with each other, Patricia and Michel are refracted yet recognizable reflections of the filmmaker who (as noted earlier) speaks through them like a ventriloquist to his audience. "I see no difference between reality and an image of reality," Godard said in 1979. "I always say, 'A picture is life and life is a picture.' And when I make pictures it's making life... ,"19 Godard is discussing the interplay between his private and professional activities, but his attitude is mirrored by Michel and Patricia as they go about their day-to-day lives. Outward signs - images for Godard, actions and behaviors for Patricia and Michel - cannot be separated from the realities "behind" them, since all are interrelated parts of an endless loop. Arbitrary social rules may warp or distort this arrangement, leading to various crises - the difficulty of uniting love and work, for instance - that Godard explores and often weeps over in his later films. The main characters of his first feature are oddly in tune with it, however, and if this fails to bring them happiness (perhaps an impossible commodity in our profoundly flawed world) at least their capacity for spontaneous action lends them a measure of existential energy that merely commonsensical creatures could envy.
All of which is to say that Godard and his Breathless protagonists agree with F. Scott Fitzgerald that "action is character" - and, they would add, vice versa. Michel is especially impatient with anything that threatens his extroverted approach to life, including Patricia's occasional efforts at philosophical thought. "Between grief and nothing I will take grief," she quotes from William Faulkner's book The Wild Palms, and then asks Michel which he would choose. "Show me your toes," he less than helpfully replies. It's a funny and revealing moment, and when Patricia presses him again to make Faulkner's choice, he reconfirms his dislike for introverted thinking. "Grief is idiotic," he says. "I'd choose nothing. It's not any better, but grief is a compromise. You've got to have all or nothing."
Given this refusal of anything partial or incomplete, it is not surprising that the adventures of Michel and Patricia generally unfold in bursts of concrete activity, choreographed by Godard to reveal character on both individual and social levels. Some of these moments are as broadly melodramatic as one would expect in a movie dedicated to Monogram Pictures, a low-budget Hollywood studio whose lean, energetic productions Godard had admired as a young critic.20 Michel first shows his antisocial streak, for instance, by stealing a car and then abandoning the woman who helps him pull off the heist, and all this is just a prelude to his murder of the highway cop who's been sharp-witted enough to chase him down. Other revelations of character through action are subtle or almost subliminal, however. Consider the car-stealing scene, when Michel's accomplice follows the couple whose sedan Michel is about to take, and all three of these figures - the lookout and the impending victims - walk exactly in step with one another as they make their way down the Parisian sidewalk. This suggests that despite their very different places in this narrative, they are all linked components of the city's violent, unpredictable ambience.
Another element linking Breathless with the hipster sensibility is the fact that the city is a vitally important character in it. I realize that calling the city a character is the sort of observation made so often by commentators - the house is a character in Psycho, the ship is a character in Battleship Potemkin, and so forth - that it has become a critical cliche. However, it suits Breathless as well as any movie I know, in part because Godard was heavily under the influence of Italian director Roberto Rossellini during the entire first stage of his career, seeing in the great neorealist's work a model for his own conviction that the relationship between character and environment is as imposing as any subject a filmmaker could hope to tackle. "He alone has an exact vision of the totality of things," Godard said of Rossellini in 1962.21 It follows that Godard's concern with place is hardly limited to the artful depiction of expressive background locations. What interests him is the way people relate to the places they are in, and conversely, the roles environment plays in determining how people move, how they present themselves to one another, how they interact with the physical world as a whole. Writing in 1965 that his sketch film "Montparnasse-Levallois" was "constructed on the actors," he immediately added that what compelled his attention was "fluidity, being able to feel existence like physical matter: it is not the people who are important, but the atmosphere between them. Even when they are in close-up, life exists around them. The camera is on them, but the film is not centred on them." One notes Godard's typical ambivalence as he says his film is "constructed on" yet not "centred on" the people in it. "The film is a district," he adds, "a particular time."22 Sure enough, what it conveys most vividly is not the psychology of its characters but the rhythm of their passage through a specific place at a specific moment. Much the same can be said for Breathless, which gives a similar sense of building upon characters who remain parts of a greater whole - the city they are in, and also the movie through which that city lives and breathes for us.
Godard's fascination with the interactivity between individual and environment returns us again to his view of interior (character, personality, psychology) and exterior (action, behavior, image) as shifting points on a loop that defies analysis via commonsense notions of cause and effect. Cinema is an ideal arena for exploring this conundrum since, as Godard noted in 1965, in this medium "the real and the imaginary are clearly distinct and yet are one, like the Moebius curve which has at the same time one side and two, like the technique of cinema-verite which is also a technique of lying."This comment on cinema-verite - a type of documentary that presents real-world material in seemingly direct, unmanipulated form - is not as negative as it may appear, but reflects Godard's view of fiction and nonfiction as interlocked approaches to an existential world in which "truth" and "lying" can never be wholly separate modes of either communication or consciousness. The interface between them is imagination, as Godard indicates near the beginning of a much later film, the 1982 drama Passion. There a movie-director character asks for an explanation of a difficult scene on which he is working - actually a tableau based on a Rembrandt painting - and an associate replies, "It's not a lie, but something imaginary. It's never exactly the truth, but not the opposite either. It's something separated from the real world by calculated approximations of probabilities." This is consistent with Godard's comment, made shortly before Breathless went into production, that "great fiction films tend towards documentary, just as .. . great documentaries tend towards fiction. . .. One must choose between ethic and aesthetic. .. . But it is no less understood that each word implies a part of the other. And he who opts wholeheartedly for one, necessarily finds the other at the end of his journey."
Navigating this journey along the Mobius strip of the imaginary is at once an exhilarating adventure and a daunting challenge. "It's pretty disconcerting, to say the least," Godard admitted in 1965. "Doubtless that is why it is difficult to say anything at all about the cinema, since .. . the end and the means are always confused" by a "double movement" that "projects us towards others while taking us inside ourselves."
Like many of Godard's statements, the remarks quoted here may seem more cryptic than the phenomena they're meant to explain; but they appear to suggest that by partaking of both reality and artifice - associated with "ethic" and "aesthetic," respectively - film demonstrates the inseparability of our mental lives from our perceptions of the social world we inhabit. Godard's view of ethics and aesthetics as overlapping domains will become an explicit concern in his second feature, The Little Soldier, where the protagonist says that "ethics are the aesthetics of the future," implying that a more enlightened age will make no distinction between the imperatives of beauty and morality. At the time of Breathless, however, Godard is less interested in idealistic projections than in here-andnow experiences. His film techniques mingle the truth of fiction with the fictionality of truth - Michel and Patricia are invented yet realistic characters, Paris is an actual yet poetically expressive setting - while illustrating the power of social images to infiltrate and influence the selves that Michel and Patricia think they are inventing under their own imaginative steam.
The fact that Michel and Patricia are not totally free agents is a crucial point. Godard's decision to explore existentialist issues through hipsterstyle characters and Beat-style improvisation might appear to presume that, as some existentialist thinkers argue, individuals have absolute freedom of will and may steer their destinies in unexpected directions. Godard is willing to question philosophical notions as readily as cinematic conventions, however, and he takes issue with this proposition in no uncertain terms. One of his methods is to show how both of his main characters draw key aspects of their seemingly anarchic personalities from the culture in which they live.
The opening scene provides an example. It begins with Michel buried in the pages of Paris-Flirt and muttering to himself, "I'm no good. If you have to, you have to." The words catch our attention, but their meaning is vague. Then he lowers the paper and reveals his face, glowering in our direction from beneath a hat brim yanked down so far it almost covers his eyes. In order to see he has to tilt his head backward, which gives him an arrogant air, enhanced by the cigarette dangling from his mouth. Looking directly toward the camera, he surveys the scene around him and lifts his hand to his mouth, rubbing his thumb across his lips in a nervous back-and-forth motion. There's something theatrical about it, and indeed, everything about Michel seems slightly larger than life - the cut of his hat, the jut of his jaw, the burly knot of his necktie, the way he checks out his surroundings without a wasted move. Later we'll learn that his thumbto-lips gesture is borrowed from the tough-guy persona often adopted by Hollywood star Humphrey Bogart, and even now it seems obvious that Michel is performing or at least posing, playing the role of a rough-andready character who either knows every trick in the book or has his weaknesses wrapped in a huge amount of protective armor. In short, he is an actor without a theater - or with one, if we remember that all the world's a stage, especially in a modern city overflowing with potential spectators. Michel may or may not be a genuinely cool character, but his moves are definitely not those of a totally self-possessed personality. They are borrowed from one of the most obvious sources imaginable: the movies.
Godard reconfirms this cultural kleptomania when he explicitly shows us that Michel is a Bogart fan. He does this through one of the film's most thoughtfully worked-out episodes, a sort of cadenza that temporarily stops the main action in its tracks. A movie theater is showing The Harder - They Fall, a 1956 prizefighting drama directed by Mark Robson; the stars are Rod Steiger, Jan Sterling, and Bogart as a down-on-his-luck sportswriter who becomes a hard-bitten press agent. Michel stands gazing at the display in front of the theater, and while numerous pictures from the movie are on view, the one that transfixes him is a standard portrait shot of Bogart in a generic movie-star pose. Godard cuts back and forth between the photo and Michel pensively removing his sunglasses, puffing his cigarette - one shot shows the picture with smoke drifting across it - and saying "Bogey" in a quiet voice. This may be childish hero worship on one level, but on another Michel is renewing contact with a wellspring of both his behavioral repertoire and his self-image as a tough, glamorous fellow who has mastered "the American attitude" as thoroughly as one of its most powerful icons. He replaces his dark glasses and moves on, and mirrored in the theater's glass facade we see the two cops who are vainly trying to tail him. The scene ends by irising out on their distant reflections, using a deliberately antique bit of cinematic punctuation to underscore the motion-picture artifice that links Michel's brief epiphany with the movie in which he himself is the star.
Another sign that Michel is embedded in a web of social role-playing is his habit of making faces. Three faces, to be exact, always done in the same order: mouth wide open in a gaping yawn, mouth stretched sideways as if saying "cheese," mouth pushed frontward beneath a wrinkled brow. He does this often, teaches Patricia to do it in her bathroom mirror, and uses it for his valedictory gesture to the world in the moment before his death. Facial expressions are essential for everyday communication within a culture, and also for projecting a persona for public consumption. They mean a lot to Michel, and while these particular ones are so stylized that they're nonsensical, it comforts him to carry them around and run through the sequence now and then. He uses the Bogart gesture just as frequently, rubbing thumb across lips with a contemplative look as he thinks of favorite movies, or events of the moment, or perhaps nothing at all. Patricia is no less culturally influenced than her boyfriend. She also faces life through a series of unconsciously assumed masks, and her performative moments are even easier to read. She conspicuously compares herself with an Auguste Renoir painting, angling her head to make the likeness as close as possible. She whimsically mentions Romeo and Juliet as role models for Michel and herself. She play-acts in front of a mirror, addressing herself with a military salute and a brisk "Dismissed!" She even tries out different attitudes in the midst of a decision-making situation. When her journalist friend presumptuously tells her that "of course" she will follow his suggestion and spend more time with him, she repeats the "of course" three times with three different inflections - first mockserious, then questioning, then smugly cheerful - in a sort of vocal variation on Michel's three-part facial tic.
What makes these moments significant is the way Godard uses small gestures - often whimsical and offbeat, never particularly meaningful or original - to indicate the contagiousness of the behavioral twitches we pick up from our social surroundings. Michel and Patricia are not self inventing hipsters but are molded or "spoken" by their society in a sort of cultural ventriloquism, obliquely echoed by the ventriloquism that Godard used to control the movie's dialogue. Although they are continually trying on different poses, expressions, and intonations, they must always choose from the options available to them as inhabitants of one specific milieu at one specific point in history. There is some variety within this constraint, of course - Michel has his little-boy facial twists, on one hand, and his tough-guy thumb gesture, on the other - but the constraint is nonetheless real, frustrating would-be free spirits who think they have far more psychological and spiritual autonomy than could ever be available to them. This explains why Michel is in a chronic state of fatigue, and why Patricia fairly pants to throw off her almost-a-gangster status and get into the newspaper business, where adventures are vicarious and the illusion of free will is harder to indulge and therefore far less tempting.
"Language is the house man lives in," a philosophical character will say in 2 or 3 Things I Know about Her, six years after Breathless. As noted in Chapter i, some thinkers consider that house a prison, and Godard would agree (at least until the later, more spiritual phase of his career) that human thought cannot effectively venture beyond the limitations of the language, verbal and nonverbal, that carries it. Michel and Patricia think they are masters of their fates, but in fact their capacity for spontaneity runs no deeper than the imitative phrases and gestures that compose their sadly circumscribed vocabularies. Try as they might to deny it, their lives are caught in roles that existed long before they arrived on the scene. Michel seems dimly aware of this when he observes that "squealers squeal, burglars burgle, killers kill, lovers love" - a catalog of character types from which he and Patricia have selected during the course of their story.
Consistency matters little to them - indeed, Michel reels off that catalog in response to Patricia's hugely ironic statement that she hates informers - but it would hardly make much difference if the opposite were true. In the end, their goal in life appears to have been nothing more lofty than transforming "It seemed like a good idea at the time" from a trite rationalization into a metaphysical principle. The highest compliment one can pay them is to acknowledge that they come precariously close to succeeding.
David Sterritt/The Films of Jean-Luc Godard: Seeing the Invisible
PUBLISHED BY THE PRESS SYNDICATE OF THE UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE
© Cambridge University Press 1999