August 31, 2009

Breathless or A Bout de Souffle

Enough has been said in other places about the way that Breathless (available online here), the 1959 film directed by Jean Luc Goddard and starring Jean Paul Belmondo and Jean Seaberg, changed the direction of cinema. Jump cuts and improvisation were introduced to audiences accustomed to Hollywood and Parisian scripted dramas with orthodox shots. Breathless though would be of little interest if it was merely a set of technical innovations: like Citizen Kane it includes them but like Orson Welles's film the secret of its success is that it does more than that and presents a vision of the world and an idea about it. Breathless is film reduced to its essential elements- the plot is so simple that it is easily caricatured: boy steals car, boy shoots policeman, boy meets girl, girl and boy spend half an hour in bed in Paris discussing art, feelings and French versus American differences etc. The characters are given little history by Goddard (breaking every narrative convention) and little future: they are just there, there in all the glory of two fine performances (an exceptional performance by Seaberg) and that presentness makes a point about life and about the way that we perceive and understand it.

Breathless is about choice. At one point in the film, Patricia (Seaberg's character) quotes William Faulkner about whether you should choose grief or nothing (incidentally importantly she first quotes him in English to Michel (Belmondo's character) savouring the line and then she translates into French). Patricia's world is disturbed by the possibility of choice constantly. Does she actually love Michel? Does she want to sleep with a journalist who might offer her articles? Does she want to pursue a life on the run with Michel? Is she actually in love with the criminal or is she just attracted sexually and provocatively to his persona? These questions are largely unanswerable. Patricia at the end of the film answers them through her actions rather than through her words. A last scene in the film takes on the argument that Michael Frayn was to make later in Copenhagen, that it is only the way that we act that describes the kinds of choices we prefer to make, that reveals our feelings. Goddard suggests that this is not neccessarily true: Patricia's action is a way to force herself to feel a certain way- we cannot be sure, especially in the last frames of the film that she has actually succeeded in governing feeling by action.

Whereas Patricia considers deeply every action she makes, Michel is impulsive. One moment I think suffices to prove the impulsiveness that is the basis for Patricia's attraction for him and for his own criminality. The two are driving along the streets of Paris: Patricia comments that French girls wear skirts that are too short, Michel says that they are fine for pulling up to reveal their legs and proceeds jumping out of the car to do so to a random Parisienne. The scene is unpleasant- almost all Michel's attitudes to women are unpleasant- and yet it is revelatory. Michel doesn't think about the girl's reactions, doesn't think about the possible consequences to himself, he just acts. When he shoots a policeman, the same thinking applies- when he steals cars the same thing applies. The difference between the two characters is that whereas Patricia never makes up her mind, Michel makes it up without thinking. For him action and thought are exactly the same thing- the conclusion is the same thing as the question.

At one point in the film, a student offers Michel a copy of the Cahiers de Cinema (Goddard's own journal) asking him whether he supports youth, he rejects it telling her that I'm old. Michel could not be more wrong in his quip. Part of the joy of breathless is that Michel is uncompromisingly young. He is immature in every sense- singing in the car to himself like a schoolboy on a summer's day, planning to go to Italy whilst expressing his love for France, shooting at trees. Even the way that he treats the revelation that Seaberg is possibly pregnant is immature- he immediately asks her why she didn't take more care. Patricia too is resolutely immature. Neither she nor Michel have much idea of the future: she treats being pregnant possibly as a mere incident, he makes the immediate prospect of jail a moment of self pity to attempt to get her clothes off. Both of them speculate about being in love with the other but beyond their attraction, they have almost nothing in common: Michel is bored by Patricia's literary quotations and treats her enrollment at the Sorbonne lightly, Patricia is affectionate but ultimately she is pragmatic about her relationship with him.

Goddard not only captures characters but also a moment. One of the important points about the film, as we have already seen, is its attitude to time. In a sense the film is a still rather than a story- there are narrative elements but the key scene in the middle of the film is the scene where Michel and Patricia lie in bed together and talk. It occupies almost a third of the film and is important for it concentrates some of what Goddard wants to say particularly about love. In a sense love here is a set of actions: on Michel's side those actions are lustful, on Patricia's they are nurturing- but love is defined less as a feeling than as those actions. After the scene in bed Patricia interviews a French novelist whose fake profundity about the relationships between men and women is supposed to be comic but who also makes clear a point I think Goddard is stretching too, that eroticism and love can be identical. The scene in the bed also gives the film something of its carefree attitude- because it is shot to represent a moment rather than a story Goddard reasserts the importance of lack of constraint. The moment, despite the fact that Patricia may be pregnant and uncertain about Michel as a father and that Michel is on the run, is a joyful one. Neither character are constrained from joy by their futures- and in that sense both characters are truly free.

Goddard was politically motivated and yet this is one of his least political films. Perhaps its only real political point is about the difference between America and France- and yet that difference is more of a difference that Henry James would have understood not Karl Marx. Patricia in a sense is the Jamesian heroine- more innocent and less criminal than the corrupt European Michel. But Goddard is also changing the equation: showing how Michel lives in the shadow of Bogart, immitating his hero's actions and staring at film posters. France is now no longer the centre of civilisation. Patricia may be innocent of crime but in all other senses she is more literary, more intelligent and more sophisticated than her French boyfriend. She embodies the complexities of America- as Goddard saw it. In a sense Breathless is the announcement that America has grown up and ceased to be the new world- in a sense it is also a commentary on European social fads from an American (the comment by Patricia that when the French say two seconds they mean five minutes is apt from a society of mass production- something Goddard, a Marxist would have been aware of).

But it is ultimately the personal not the political that drives the film forwards. The interest in it lies in the discussion of choice and time that it embodies- the freedom of futurelessness and the question of action and consideration. It is a film whose basic language can tend towards sexism- it is a cultural artefact of the leftwing European milieu from which it originated- but it also presents thoughts about universal and important questions. I started this review by talking about the simplicity of Breathless- dig a little deeper and it becomes one of the most complex films ever made- a reason I'd suggest along with its technical innovations that it is still watched and appreciated fifty years after it first came to French cinemas.


James Higham said...

The French know how to do it.