This is a hard film to think about, because it is so dense; so many things are going on in it. But as in any good film, the opening shot tells it all—or much of it. Even the dedication, not to a person but to Monogram pictures!, has put us into Godard-world. The media are the fact, not persons, even trashy media like the Monogram B-movies. They are, in a word Godard hallows, cinéma.
The first thing we see is a girlie comic (themes: media as fact; sex). The paper slips down to reveal Michel Poiccard, a petty hoodlum (Jean-Paul Belmondo in the role that made him a star). “Après tout, ” he says, "je suis con.” After all, I’m an asshole. But, of course, he doesn’t mean that. Or does he? His dying words echo the sentiment.
This is really the first of many instances where words lie or don’t mean anything. Then, “Il faut,” I must—must what? He rubs his thumb across his lips, a gesture he has copied from Humphrey Bogart and the first instance of many in which an outer action, particularly one from media, defines the inner person. As things develop, Michel steals whatever he has, cars, money, girls. He has nothing of his own except an uncashable check (cashable only with a fictional character from another film).
What drives Michel, what makes him race from Marseilles to Paris (casually shooting a cop on the way) is his wish to bed an American girl, Patricia Franchini. Godard states the motive in his typical outside-in way: “I wanted to see if I’d be glad to see you again.” Throughout, the film raises questions about intention and identity, normally we think of intention as determining action, but in Breathless it’s the other way round. As Patricia says, “Because I am mean to you, it means that I don’t love you.” And Michel: “C’est normal. Squealers squeal, burglars burgle, lovers love.” A person’s intentions are defined by actions; a person’s nature is defined by outside in, not inside out. And the outside is what appears on the screen—cinéma.
Patricia is played by Jean Seberg, quintessentially American, from Marshalltown, Iowa. (Critics would speak of her “corn-fed beauty.”) This was to be, sadly, her one great role. And Godard loudly labels her as American. She hawks the New York Herald-Tribune, indeed wears its name on her chest. She speaks error-ridden French with an American accent and often asks the meanings of French words. (Further instances of words as inadequate compared to cinéma.)
Patricia is in Paris to study at the Sorbonne and pursue a career as a journalist. She plans ahead, meets her commitments, and calculates consequences. She embodies another of Godard’s themes: France vs. America. As late as 1971 Parisians would stop my wife or me on the sidewalk to thank us for what America did in World War II. But by 1960 the French Left had come to detest America in her role as superpower: greed, duplicity, wars, fanatical anti-communism, U.S. involvement in French Indo-China, and so on.
In this film, impulsivity is good; Patricia’s planning and scheming is not. Contrast the jazzy piano theme for Michel with the Hollywood-y strings for Patricia. Or her shaky French with his fast, slurred slang. And Godard echoed that theme in his impulsive method of planning his film: he would write the dialogue in the morning and film it in the afternoon, often calling out lines or actions to the actors while shooting or dubbing. (All the dialogue had to be dubbed post-production, because the cheap Cameflex camera he was using was so noisy.)
Michel embodies impulsivity. As the first scene goes on, he and his current girlfriend (sex again) signal each other, and—his first act in the film— he steals the big American car of an American army officer. Hah! So much for the vaunted American military might. But little does Michel know how America, in the person of Patricia, will pay him back. And, as it turns out, because she wants to study at the Sorbonne and pursue her career, she wants him just to go off to Italy and leave her alone. She enlists the police in her cause, and Michel dies. This is, of course, classic film noir stuff: the femme fatale is more dangerous than the killer.
As Michel drives his stolen American car from Marseilles to Paris, he talks to us, and this is another of Godard’s ideas: that the crucial relationship in a movie is not between the characters (Michel’s easily dumped Marseilles girlfriend, Michel’s elusive debtors, Patricia’s betraying Michel) but between what is on the screen and us, the audience. This is the relationship stated in the last shot of the film. Patricia/America stares out at us, having betrayed her lover, having misunderstood his last words, and having taken over Michel’s Bogart gesture. Then she turns her back on us—the movie is over.
Godard says he makes essays. “I consider myself an essayist, producing essays in the form of novels or novels in the form of essays, only instead of writing, I film them.” In that same interview he has said that his essays for the legendary film magazine, Cahiers du Cinéma, were in fact film making. In other words, in his movies he is not telling a story; he is making statements.
In Breathless, this idea translates into Godard’s camera constantly calling attention to itself, circling, irising out, showing passersby gawking at the camera, Michel’s speaking to the camera, and of course the celebrated jump cuts. These were almost accidental. Godard filmed 30 minutes too much, and to shorten the film he chose to cut into scenes instead of cutting whole scenes. These jump cuts, slicing into the normal presentation of time, made the film, his cinematographer said, “more electric.” And they put Godard on the map.
Pictures, looks, cinéma, are what count. It is a newspaper picture that traps Michel, and it is Godard himself who shows up in the film to see it and tell the cops. He irises that shot out to make sure we see what he is doing. By contrast words become mere jabber. There is the journalist Van Doude (played by himself), trying put the make on Patricia by telling her how he forgot that some girl had said she would sleep with him. Surely a doubtful tactic. Or the sex-obsessed interview with the novelist Parvulesco (played by Jean-Pierre Melville, godfather to the nouvelle vague). These talkers demonstrate word sex instead of the 25-minute foreplay in Patricia’s room, body to body, image to image.
Words don’t work. Indeed, Godard’s 2014 film (3-D, no less) is titled, Adieu au Langage or Goodbye to Language. Words produce paradoxes and contradictions: “I’d like to think of something nice but I can’t.” “The French always say it’s all the same when it isn’t.” “I want to become immortal—and then die.” The last words of the film are problematic. The death-dealing police inspector with the life-giving name Vital (writer Daniel Boulanger) lies to Patricia. Michel’s last words were, “I am really nauseating (dégueulasse). Patricia asks what he said, and Vital says, “He said you are nauseating.” What is not a lie is Patricia’s image on the screen and her taking over Michel’s Bogart-gesture. The tragedy Breathless portrays is that the old way of making movies, planning, scheming, the bourgeois values triumphing over amorality, in short, classical Hollywood style in the person of Patricia, wins out. But happily that didn’t happen. Godard’s radical methods won out. Otherwise we would never have had classics like Bonnie and Clyde (Penn, 1969), The Graduate (Nichols, 1967), Easy Rider (Hopper, 1964), Midnight Cowboy (Schlesinger, 1969), and many another.
What then was—is—so radical about Breathless? Godard is insisting that we look at the film as itself the fact, that we not look through the film to some story that it represents, some story behind the screen, as it were. “Why do I need a story?,” said Godard. “I don’t make films. I make cinema.” He does have stories, to be sure, usually about ill-fated love and death, as with the references to Romeo and Juliet in this film. But it’s not a normal narrative; it has a 25-minute dialogue in the middle discussing whether the anti-hero and anti-heroine will have sex. Story is not important, just as Michel and Patricia ignore the consequences or morality of what they do. What is important is what’s on the screen. That is the fait, the fact, and French helps us here: fait is also the past participle of faire. It is what is made, done—what Godard made, not the words, not the idea (which happened to be by Truffaut), not some fictional story. It is whatever we see on screen (including plain text like the dedication, a device Godard will use again and again in his later films).
Not many directors have been willing to go as far on this track, film-not-story, as Godard did in his post-1968 work. The most radical directors of today still tell stories: Tim Burton, Lars von Trier, Abbas Kiarostami, Jim Jarmusch—perhaps only David Lynch and Burmese director Apichatpong Weerasethakul have followed Godard’s theories about the fait of cinéma at least part of the way. But Godard is still out there in the lead, as with his bizarre and challenging Histoire(s) du Cinéma, (1990-98), a five-hour cinéma making his ideas about twentieth-century film into images, faits, on the screen.
Again and again, polls of critics name him as one of the three most innovative directors ever, along with Griffith and Welles. His influence has been huge. His films in their strange anti-aesthetic way still captivate audiences. He is one of the movies’ immortals, and Breathless is not only his manifesto, but a great film.
An item I’ve referred to: Godard, Jean-Luc, “Talking to Cahiers, 1962.” 36-47. In À Bout de Souffle, booklet accompanying the Criterion DVD of Breathless, #408. Trans. and ed. Tom Milne. 36-47.