by Tony Dayoub
Watching Breathless (À bout de souffle) today, with the benefit of fifty years of critical hindsight, I am struck by the way it so obviously indicates the trajectory its director's career would take over time. Jean-Luc Godard, who defended/lauded underrated American B-movies as a critic for Cahiers du Cinéma, presents Breathless as both a tribute to and rejection of said films all at once, opening with a title card dedicating the film to Monogram Pictures while doing his best to overcome the budgetary and structural obstacles such films were often subject to. It's through his protagonists' interplay, though, that we see the earliest spark of Godard's revolt against the status quo.
It's ironic Breathless' central characters, Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg), have such distinct names because in many ways they are ciphers. Each is less of a realistic persona and more a representative of a specific iconic type found in cinema: Michel the tough talking rebel recalled by the close-up of a Bogey photograph early in the film; Patricia the lost expatriate beauty, an extension of actress Jean Seberg's real-life seclusion in France when her nascent film career took a dive after being miscast in a couple of Preminger films.
Together, Michel and Patricia reflect the tension in this transitional moment for Godard, in which he goes from critic dabbling in short films to full-fledged auteur of the sort even he didn't propose in his writings. Michel stands in for the dark, anarchic impulse of an artist struggling to break free of the restrictions imposed by his limited thinking ancestors. And Patricia symbolizes the pretty Hollywood studio films the artist begins to concede are hollow, traitorous, and hostage to the limitations of their genus. As Michel admits near the end of the film, the young lovers often talk about themselves more often than they talk to each other, neither fully embracing the other. The one instance in which they momentarily connect is when Patricia confesses she may be pregnant with Michel's child, a comment on Hollywood's acquisition of artistic inspiration just before it commercializes it. Patricia tries to place free-spirited Michel in a cage as gilded as the one Godard believes Hollywood ensnares its artists in.
It is as if Godard's mind is cleaved in two; one side respectful of the American auteurs he has idolized; the other with a mind to destroy them in order to set off in a new direction. Godard speaks through Michel, but he acts through Patricia. Michel immediately draws us in, the character breaking the fourth wall shortly after he steals his first automobile; Godard creates a complicity with the audience when he places his camera in the front seat of the car, directing Belmondo to speak into the lens. Patricia is more enigmatic. One looks at the beautiful Seberg, but can never truly look into her. Instead, we are forced to reflect on her sometimes unpredictable actions. In a reversal of expectations, Michel, flagrantly disregarding even the most basic societal code of conduct, is the more traditional one; it is he who typically spouts aphorisms, such as "Women will never do in eight seconds what they would gladly agree to in eight days." Patricia is more deceptive, a seeming conformist afraid to do anything that may jeopardize the income she gets from her parents back in the States; she is still evolving, forming into the person she will be, "I don't know if I'm unhappy because I'm not free, or if I'm not free because I'm unhappy."
Those words could just as easily be coming from Godard's mouth. As cinematographer Raoul Coutard reveals in a documentary on Criterion's Blu-ray (released just this past Tuesday), Godard was just as likely to shoot an above average amount of scenes in one day as call him in the morning to propose he call their producer and tell him they wouldn't shoot today because the director fell ill from eating a bad slice of pizza. The "jump cut" technique—an innovation which impressed and inspired so many filmmakers who followed him, freeing them from a long established film language—was Godard's simple solution to shortening the film's lengthy running time without eliminating entire scenes. This is not to discredit Godard's pioneering work. It is to reframe his inventiveness as an instinctive grasp of how to break the rules born not out of some calculated desire to do so but out of expediency.
That Michel ultimately dies as a result of Patricia's betrayal may serve as a parallel to Godard's submission to commercial demands in Breathless, his first feature. But the last shot of Patricia in which, for the first time, she strokes her upper lip in the same manner Michel does throughout the film, reveals how much of Michel's characteristics she has absorbed. If one allows that Patricia is emblematic of the mainstream Hollywood film and Michel of the reckless artist, then the statement Godard makes is a bold one; he capitulates in this artistic battle, but declares he will emerge victorious in the war. Ultimately—as the recent announcement of an Honorary Academy Award attests to—it is Hollywood which adopted some of Godard's methodology, not the other way around.