To give Jean-Luc Godard’s A bout de soufflé (Breathless) its proper place in film history would require a great deal more space than is available here and, indeed, volumes have already been written on the subject. Roy Armes put it succinctly: “All the rules of conventional film-making are scorned.” Over the past half-century, Godard (now 82) has become, if not our greatest living director, then certainly our most written about. Richard Roud, a Godard admirer, wrote ”For many, he is the most important film-maker of his generation; for others, he is, if not the worst, then the most unbearable…he is admired and detested for the very same reasons.”
A rich kid from Geneva, Godard made several shorts in Paris in the 1950s. He became part of the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd of contrarian critics, mentored by André Bazin, who advocated what came to be called auteur theory. Like his colleagues, Godard was heavily influenced by Hollywood genre films. (Breathless is dedicated to Monogram Pictures, producers of such classics as Port of Missing Girls, Black Market Babies, The Ghost Creeps, and Bomba the Jungle Boy.) When Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and Patricia (Jean Seberg) go to the movies to hide out from the cops, they choose Budd Boetticher’s Westbound. Paris, especially at night, has probably never looked more scintillating than it does in Breathless. Much of the credit for this must go to cinematographer Raoul Coutard, who photographed almost all of Godard’s and Francois Truffaut’s films in the New Wave glory days of the 1960s.
Although Breathless remains one of Godard’s most accessible films, one can never fully escape the thought that Godard represents the auteur theory gone manic. The in-your-face rule-breaking and fragmentation that the film introduced has been so influential over the past half-century that it has become almost impossible to recall how it was experienced at the time of its release. Now, I must confess to impatience with the seemingly endless trivial banter between Seberg and Belmondo in Seberg’s bedroom. Much of the freshness seems to me to be gone (just like Seberg’s employer, The New York Herald Tribune); the outrageousness and impropriety of the sexuality has become outdated. One can hardly blame Godard for the changes in the cinema and in reality, but one can also never recapture the film’s initial appeal.
On a recent Turner Classic Movies broadcast, Drew Barrymore, who grew up from being E.T.’s playmate to become Little Edie in Grey Gardens, described the Seberg and Belmondo characters as “the coolest people you’ve ever seen.” Of course, Belmondo, in Godard’s hands, is a violent psychopathic murderer, thief, and liar, and Seberg is not much better, whimsically selling him out to the police because she decides she doesn’t really love him. I’m currently reading Anthony Trollope’s mammoth The Way We Live Now, his reawakening to British cynicism and corruption, written on his return from a paradisiacal America in the mid-1870s. Early on, the novelist describes one of his main protagonists, Sir Felix Carbury: “But it cannot be said of him that he had ever loved any one to the extent of denying himself a moment’s gratification on that loved one’s behalf. His heart was a stone. But he was beautiful to look at, ready-witted, and intelligent.”
Has such solipsism become the new “cool”? Perhaps Ms. Barrymore, though, is not too far off the mark. Godard, over the course of the past half-century, has made much of his humanism and concern over social issues, often buying into ultra-leftist arguments. However, suppose the selfishly, ruthlessly “cool” characters of Breathless are self-portraits of the auteur? I hope to explore this in future weeks and subsequent films.