“Informers inform, burglars burgle, murderers murder, lovers love” - Michel
“I believe in dialectics” - Godard
Ian Cameron begins his book on Jean-Godard by writing, “If violence ever breaks out in the normally peaceable ranks of film critics, it will almost certainly be provoked by the work of Jean-Luc Godard” (6). Richard Roud writes, “Jean-Luc Godard is, of all contemporary directors, the most controversial” (7). David Sterritt echoes, “Mention the films and videos of Jean-Luc Godard, and superlatives will flow from his admirers. I was not ever thus. Godard’s reputation has undergone more than its share of ups and downs” (1). These comments are sparked by two things: Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Luc Godard’s films. His first film, A Bout de Souffle (Breathless) is no exception. It has been heralded as the brilliant beginning of the French New Wave, a piece of pure art and it has been dismissed as nothing more than a gangster film with bad editing. However, when one looks closer it becomes apparent that he wanted it this way; he wanted to spark controversy and he wanted to make people think.
Andre Bazin and Jean-Pierre Chartier established the Cahiers du cinema in 1942 and, in doing so, laid the groundwork for the establishment of the nouvelle vague (New Wave) and its directors. Viewing film as a language, the critics of the Cahiers called for personal realism (which was anti-montage) and a resulting politique du cinema (which later became known as auteur theory). This politique gave the power to the auteur (roughly “author”) which was usually the director. The “homme de cinema” had the ability to wield the camera like an author wields a pen (camera-stylo); he had the control.
Godard takes his control solidly for the first time in 1959, with his first feature Breathless. And with this control Godard has sparked much criticism, debate, and thought about what exactly he is trying to say. This, as many critics emphasize, is the way that he will operate for most of his career; it with Breathless and namely with his character Michel Poiccard that Godard begins to truly speak in the first person and where he will begin his dive into the dialectical.
David Sterrit in his Seeing the Invisible writes, “The opening scene 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” (57). A different translation is, “After all, I’m an asshole. After all, I must, I must!” With the opening line, Godard lets the audience into the instability that will characterize the rest of his film. Michel does not know who he is (much in the same way, as Godard would argue, that he doesn’t know who he is and humans in general are on a quest for identity). As Ian Cameron writes, “In images of dazzling clarity, Godard reflects the ideological confusions of the world today. The only unity which he imposes on his observations is that which comes from his own individuality as an observer. Increasingly, his films have been shaped by his own uncertainties”(8). He continues, “Godard is at his best when his films are least coherent and least circumscribed, when they appear to be reaching out through references and allusions in all directions to take in vast areas of modern life” (8).
In this way, Godard is the ultimate modernist and Michel is his ultimate mouthpiece. He once said, “In A Bout de Souffle I was looking for the theme right through the shooting, and finally became interested in Belmando. I saw him as a sort of block to be filmed to discover what lay inside” (175). This criminal makes decisions on a whim, is helplessly in love, and is constantly in search of his identity. In one of the most famous scenes of the film, the breakneck cuts, music, and pace slow and cut to Michel standing in front of a poster of The Harder They Fall. He is face to face with a picture of his God-like idol Humphrey Bogart. Michel stares, smoking his ubiquitous cigarette and utters “Bogey” in a manner on par with a child’s first words. He is in awe.
Michel, as a character, is constantly contradicting and constantly indifferent. He does not think twice when he shoots the policeman after the initial car chase. This, of course, sets the plot in motion by putting him on the run. So, essentially, Breathless is a story built off of this improvisational move and this theme continues throughout. Michel says what’s on his mind when it’s on his mind. As Godard says, “It is when a man talks simply for the sake of talking that he pronounces the most beautiful and original truths.” He also famously says, “People in life quote as they please, so we have the right to quote as we please. Therefore I show people quoting, merely making sure that they quote what pleases me. In the notes I make of anything that might be of use for a film, I will add a quote from Dostoevsky if I like it. Why not? If you want someone to say something, there is only one solution: say it” (173).
Michel also does what he wants to do. He robs cars, mugs people, and steals from those who trust him. He is a man of action and this action is directed towards his needs. This is with the exception of Patricia, the woman who throws all of this out of whack. She is what creates the tension, the conflict, and the contradiction within Michel. He is in love with her, as he admits at the beginning of the movie and he’ll beg, borrow, and steal for her. But this comes into direct conflict with Michel’s Bogart image. Bogart is dependent on only himself; he can love and leave. But Michel is as attached as he ever will be to anyone. So he tries to get Patricia to talk to him, have sex with him, and move to
Michel is trying to find his meaning much in the same way that Breathless, as a whole, is trying to find its meaning. It was shot as an attempt at the gangster film and film noir, but Godard wanted reality. He writes, “Beauty and truth have two poles: documentary and fiction. You can start with either one. My starting point is documentary to which I try to give the truth of fiction”(8). However, he wrote of Breathless, “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” (175). With this statement, Godard is admitted two things. The first is that he contradicts himself (he has been widely regarded as not liking Breathless). He says in an interview with Colin MacCabe, “It’s more a picture that I’ve done for others. A dream of how to make a picture. Perhaps the films should have been done but not by me…I feel that it’s not my movie” (45). But, more importantly, he is admitting that conscious efforts and unconscious thoughts led Breathless to its conclusion. Godard may not have meant to make it the way he did, but that’s the way he would want it to be. In other words, he was just doing what he thought was right. He was improvising.
In an interview with Cahiers, Godard says, “On A Bout de Souffle I used to write the evening before shooting. With me this is a method. As I make low-budget films, I can ask the producer for a five-week schedule, knowing there will be two weeks of actual shooting…The big difficulty is that I need people who can be at my disposal the whole time. Sometimes they have to wait a whole day before I can tell them what I want them to do. I have to ask them not to leave the location in case we start shooting again. Of course they don’t like it. That’s why I always try to see that people who work with me are well-paid. Actors don’t like it for a different reason: an actor likes to feel he’s in control of his character, even if it isn’t true, and with me they rarely do. The terrible thing is that in the cinema it is so difficult to do what a painter does quite naturally: he stops, steps back, gets discouraged, starts again, changes something. He can please himself” (180).
This is Godard’s aim - he must, like Michel, please himself. He wants to be a painter of images. So much so that Richard Roud compares him to Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer writing, “One thinks first of all of Vermeer, who was also, in a sense, a painter of reality, one whose subjects were drawn from the banality of everyday life. But often the beauty in both Vermeer and Godard comes from gestures or movement. And like Vermeer, Godard accepts the true light source - accepts and glories in it” (81). Emma Wilson agrees, “Both Godard and Truffaut revel in their early films in the possibility of filming in the street, the natural light. A Bout de Souffle is marked in particular by the work of Raoul Coutard, one of the most celebrated cinematographers of his generation. Coutard’s work with a moving camera, in the scenes in the
Michel cannot be qualified as good or as bad. He is struggling against society in the ways that Hegel, Sartre, and Foucault wrote about. Foucault writes at the end of his study on Bentham’s Panopticon, “It is a type of location of bodies in space, of distribution of individuals in relation to one another, of hierarchical organization, of disposition of centres and channels of power, of definition of the instruments and modes of intervention of power, which can be implemented in hospitals, workshops, schools, prisons. There were many reasons why it received little praise…but the real reason is no doubt that the power that it operates and which it augments is a direct, physical power that men exercise upon one another.” This is, no doubt, analogous to the power that the state, the police, and the law have over Michel. His freedom is bound by their careful watch and, in the end, it is taken away by their hand.
Sarte writes in his Being in Nothingness, “Seduction aims at producing in the Other the consciousness of his state of nothingness as he confronts the seductive object. By seduction I aim at constituting myself as a fullness of being and at making myself recognized as such.” Michel, in the same way, is attempting to be by being through Patricia. Unfortunately, he is caught up in a Hegelian Master-Slave dialectic and, he’s the slave. He does everything for her and, in the end, she’s the one who rats him out.
Godard is fascinated with this American woman and
“Now you just dig them in front. They have worries, they’re counting the miles, they’re thinking about where to sleep tonight, how much money for gas, the weather, how they’ll get there - and all the time they’ll get there anyway, you see. But they need to worry and betray time with urgencies false and otherwise, purely anxious and whiny, their souls really won’t be at peace unless they can latch on to an established and proven worry and having once found it they assume facial expressions to fit and go with it, which is, you see, unhappiness, and all the time it all flies by them and they know it and that too worries them to no end.”