Friday, September 13, 2013

Jean-Luc Godard | À bout de soufflé (Breathless)

between grief and nothing
by Douglas Messerli

François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol (screenplay), Jean-Luc Godard (director) À bout de soufflé
(Breathless) / 1960

I first saw Jean-Luc Godard’s groundbreaking film À bout de soufflé (Breathless) sometime close to its original 1960 premiere, and then again several years later, before watching the Criterion 2007 release yesterday. Having watched the Turner Classics Movie showing of High Sierra just the day before, and re-viewing Out of the Past on TCM the same afternoon, I suppose it was inevitable that the Godard film had been waiting for just this moment on my Netflix queue, for it was perfect to see this faux noir between two of the best noirs of the 1940s.

       I must admit that the two previous times I’d seen the Godard film I was not exactly charmed by it; at the age of 13, and then about 10 years later, I was clearly not mature enough to comprehend how one might be able to find a chain-smoking, face-mugging, oddly comical, small-time punk murderer of a policeman as appealing or even intriguing in the way his young American girlfriend found him to be, and which, by extension, the film demanded of its audience as well! Taking advantage of every woman he knew and stealing every American car in sight, Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) (also known, in an inside joke, as Laszlo Kovacs, a reference to Belmondo’s role in Claude Chabrol’s À double tour), Michel seemed to my younger self as a kind of “troubled adolescent” that I’d been warned to stay away from; James Dean seemed far more innocent. And, why, I kept thinking myself, was this film so “chopped up,” filled with what I did not recognize at the time were Godard’s famed “jump cuts.”

      Michel’s gamin-like American girlfriend Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg), although more recognizable, was equally puzzling. Although she seemed to have deeper concerns than her thoroughly attractive (although New York Times critic Bosley Crowther described him as “hypnotically ugly”) boyfriend—she is understandably worried about possibly being pregnant with Michel’s child, she reads and quotes one of my favorites, Faulkner, and she asks far more serious questions than her colleagues of the self-enchanted sexist writer, Parvulesco, played by Jean-Pierre Melville (enquiring “What is your greatest ambition in life?” and a question that seems to point to more serious roles for women than his focus on their love and faithfulness)—she admits, time and again, that she doesn’t know what she’s thinking. She often clowns with Michel as if her budding journalistic career meant little to her. She attends the Sorbonne, evidently, to keep the checks from home arriving on time. Although she occasionally spouts somewhat ponderous questions—via Faulkner’s The Wild Palms asking Michel whether he would chose “grief or nothing”—and posting great art works by Cezanne, Picasso, and Klee upon her walls, she seems inept at focusing on any one idea for long. One of the long-standing jokes of this film is her ineptness at speaking French, as she asks time and again for the definition of various French idioms: “Qu’est ce que c’esst ‘dégeulasse’?” (a bitch), “What’s a scumbag?” “What’s that mean ‘puke?’” “What does it mean ‘to make faces?’”—all of which, given our reading them as English subtitles, makes it appear, at moments, as if she does not understand English either.

      Although Patricia ultimately discovers that her lover is a murderer with a stolen car, and is married, she seems willing to go along with him just for the sheer excitement of events, a bit like Bonnie of the later Bonnie and Clyde, willing to take up with the madman simply to escape the more restrained life in which she is trapped. Yet the danger of that way of living, particularly given her restraints of family, language, and possible childbirth, is obviously apparent to her, as she informs on Michel (a role she previously found disgusting, while Michel has a more philosophical view of it all: “Informers inform, burglars burgle, murderers murder, lovers love.”), claiming, that her call to the police is not about him but simply a test of her own love. Both figures are, indeed, ridiculously selfish beings. As Michel himself recalls it, “When we talked, I talked about me, you talked about you, when we should have talked about each other.” And, in the end, as film critic Roger Ebert puts it: “It is remarkable that the reviews of this movie do not describe her [Patricia] as a monster.”

      Perhaps it is because the real monster, as loveable as he may be, is Michel, who would take advantage of the devil if he could. Like so many American child-men, the French Michel is so completely taken up with his own image, his own imagination of being, that he cannot distinguish between reality and life. He is, as he longingly stares at a poster of Humphrey Bogart in The Harder They Fall, a younger Bogart performing in his mind, rather than in the real streets of Marseilles and Paris, an imaginary scenario of living which begins when he addresses the cinema audience as he speeds through the French countryside. Finding a gun in the stolen car’s glove compartment, he takes it out and, like a child playing cops and robbers, mockingly pretending to shoot it at passing drivers before actually shooting bullets into the wilderness, and then, out of fear of being apprehended, actually shooting it into the chest of an investigating cop. For such a being, a child in the body of a grown man, he cannot separate fantasy from reality, and if his quirky behavior thereafter seems, a times, like a charming noir hero, they are, actually, as we quickly perceive, the actions of a terrified child, desperate for money, love, safety, and most importantly, sleep.

      Sleep is the one thing this wonderful film never permits its “heroes.” Even when Michel sneaks into the bed on his women acquaintances, they awaken him or attempt to throw him out. Since, as he jokingly quips, he only stays at the wealthy Claridge, which has no rooms available, he can find no place to sleep in the whole of France. The remarkable thing about Traffaut’s and Godard’s film (a film in which writing and directing truly share equal billing) is its almost constant revelation of motion as characters dress and undress, crawl across beds, curl up and couple under the covers, wander the streets, outrun the police, and literally hop, jump, and skip through space. As Patricia puts it: “It’s sad to fall asleep. It separates people Even when you’re sleeping together, you’re all alone.”

      Apparently Godard’s heavy use of jump-cuts was an accidental result of having to cut more than a half-an-hour from the final shoot. But the brilliance of these “chance” cuts are that the film spins us through time in a rhythm of leaps and hops as the two seemingly unexhausted children play out their lives in a kind of leonine prowl of the Paris streets, only to finally, in complete fatigue (the “breath’s end” of the original French title), curl up into death, helped along by the frumpy general inspector’s gun. The sleek lions of this world are doomed simply because, in the long night of their adventures, they have been unable to stop. The final long, lonely run down the rue Champagne-Premiere which ends in Michel’s collapse is ironically expressed by his reaching up to his own face in order to close his eyelids, an act that might be usually achieved by a lover or friend. Patricia, on the chase, reaches him, but stands like the policemen who have joined her as part of the phalanx of those who were emotionally, at least, dead already before the chase.

       Unlike Patricia, Michel has comprehended, by film’s end, who he truly is: “After all, I’m an asshole,” a man who clearly prefers “nothing” over “grief.”  Patricia will have to embrace the grief forever.

Los Angeles, September 13, 2013


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