Godard’s Pop Culture Noir
By Ed Garea and Jean-Paul Garrieux
Breathless (Les Films Imperia, 1960) - Director: Jean-Luc Godard. Writer: Francois Truffaut (story). Cast: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg, Daniel Boulanger, Henri-Jacques Huet, Roger Hanin, Claude Mansard, Richard Balducci, Jean-Pierre Melville, Francois Moreuil, Jean-Luc Godard. (Original title: A bout de soufflé) B&W, 90 minutes.
“To make a film all you need is a girl and a gun.” -- Jean-Luc Godard
If only it were that simple. And yet, Godard pulled it off, for all he needed was a low budget and enough imagination to overcome it. Dedicated to Monogram Studios, whose films were often playing at the theater down the street from the offices of Cahiers du Cinema, where Godard was plying his trade as a film critic, the film resembles a Monogram product in that it was made and looks on the cheap. However, while Monogram Bs emphasized action over characterization, Breathless turns that formula on its head, emphasizing the characters. A film that might have begun as a noir has instead aged over the years to become a pop culture watershed.
Godard was eager, almost chomping at the bit to make a movie. His friends and colleagues at Cahiers, Francois Truffaut and Claude Chabrol, had already made their feature debuts. However, while Truffaut and Chabrol drew upon the autobiographical in their films, Godard chose to do a film with almost no touches of the autobiographical. Perhaps this is because Godard, unlike Truffaut and Chabrol, grew up in the pleasant climes around Geneva, Switzerland, the son of wealthy parents.
Breathless details a simple story: Michel Poicaard (Belmondo) is a young punk who styles himself after Humphrey Bogart. He steals a car in Marseille and heads for Paris, but is stopped by two motorcycle cops. Discovering a pistol in the glove compartment, he uses it to kill one of the policemen, and takes off running. Reaching Paris, he looks up old girlfriend Patricia Franchini (Seberg), an American student and aspiring journalist, who is hawking copies of the New York Herald-Tribune (where she works) on the street. After some conversational give-and-take, she agrees to hide him while he tries to get in touch with an associate who owes him money to that he can evade the police and flee to Rome. But the police are closing in and pressure Patricia to give Michel up. She betrays him, which leads to the finale, where Michel is shot in the street while attempting to flee.
The synopsis strongly resembles a film noir of the type for which Monogram was famous. However, Godard’s approach to the material departs radically from the Hollywood template. He employed his experience as a critic, his knowledge of both high and low culture, and his philosophical meanderings, derived principally from existentialism, to transform the story. His lack of movie-making experience was not a problem, for he had the help of such as Claude Chabrol, Francois Truffaut, and Jean-Pierre Melville whenever he became stumped. He also had the services of cinematographer Raoul Coutard, suggested to him by producer Georges de Beauregard, who had Coutard under personal contract. Coutard cut his teeth shooting documentaries for the French Army’s Information Service in Indochina. His background suited Godard perfectly, especially considering the budget and Godard’s lack of expertise. Coutard was able to show Godard how to shoot with a handheld camera and a minimum of lighting, for which he used a specialized film, Ilford HPS, intended for still photography and not available at the time as motion picture stock. He spliced 18-meter lengths of the film into 120-meter rolls. Because the sprocket holes differed from the sprocket holes for normal motion picture film, Coutard used an Eclair Cameflex camera, the only one that would work with the film stock. However, this presented a whole new set of problems, for the camera was noisy and unable to produce synchronized sound. The only alternative was to dub the film during post-production.
Melville showed Godard the tricks of placing the cameraman in a wheelchair (as he did with Bob le flambeur) for tracking shots, giving the film a look of improvisation. Because Godard did not have the necessary permits to shoot on the street, Melville showed him an old trick he improvised during the shooting of Bob le flambeur: placing the cameraman inside a postal cart with a hole cut out for the lens along with packages on the top. (Melville also neglected to get the necessary permits to film.)
Melville schooled Godard in the art of jump cuts, which further enhances the illusion; not only of improvisation, but also of what goes hand-in-hand with it - imminence. To his credit, Godard took the craft of jump cuts to a whole new level, giving the film fluidity. Some of the cuts took place within the camera while other cuts were made in the editing room. Godard’s first cut of the film was about 2½ hours long, but producer Georges de Beauregard wanted the film at no more than 90 minutes, so rather than take out whole scenes, Godard shortened them through the use of jump cuts, cutting within scenes and even within shots. To shorten the film even more, Godard also cut between shots from disorienting angles, breaking the traditional rules of continuity. The result is a film that not only looks like a newsreel, and appears amateurish, but one that conveys the idea of imminence, for as the film progresses, the audience remains on top of the action, rather than viewing it at a distance, as is done with most other films. Godard saw the act of making a film as an important prelude to its meaning; as important as its content and style. Film for Godard is a sort of “action painting,” reflecting the conditions under which it was made. The role of the director, such as his technique, was the means to the end of making it personal, in this case the infusion of original ideas to the overall aesthetic.
The title, A bout de soufflé, loosely translates as “Breathless.” However, Godard is using another meaning: at the end of breath, at the last gasp, giving a clue as to the ending and the new beginning the viewer can infer.
THE STORY BEHIND THE LENS
To listen to Godard talk, one would believe the film sprang all ready-made from his head, and all he had to do was fill in the blanks. But this, of course, is not so. We have already seen the help Melville provided on the set with regards to the technical side. As to the story, Godard has Truffaut to thank. For years Truffaut was fascinated with a November 1952 incident concerning petty criminal Michel Portail that French tabloids France-Soir and Detective featured on their pages and which kept their readers in thrall. Portail, a young thug imprisoned for armed robbery and then expelled from the United States, returned to France and spent the summer with his American journalist girlfriend, Beverly Lumet, on the Cote d’Azur, living the high life. Learning that his mother, who lived in Le Havre, was dying, Portail stole a diplomat’s car from in front of the Greek embassy and was driving to see her when a motorcycle policeman named Grinberg pulled him over. He shot and killed the patrolman and managed to hide out for two weeks until police found him in a barge docked on the Seine, in the center of Paris. What especially interested Truffaut about the story was the American girlfriend who helped him hide out from the police. Portail hoped to take her with him on his escape. Instead she turned him over to the police.
Truffaut worked with both Chabrol and Godard in developing the story for film, but failed to find an interested producer, in part because Michangelo Antonini’s 1953 film, I vinti (The Vanquished), had an episode based on a sensational 1948 case where a 16-year old boy shot a classmate to death, ostensibly over the affection of a girl. The girl’s father sued in French court, asserting that the identity of his daughter was not protected. The French government agreed and censored the film on the grounds that it implicated people still living. As Michel Portail was in prison at the time, producers understandably backed off. In 1959, Godard, now itching to make a movie, asked if he might revive the project. Truffaut, fresh off the overwhelming reception of Les Quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows) at Cannes, not only gave his blessing, but also hooked Godard up with producer Georges de Beauregard. Both Truffaut and Chabrol agreed to work on the film if de Beauregard agreed to produce it. Their offer secured the necessary financing, and so Truffaut was credited as the writer and Chabrol as technical adviser, although neither really had much to do with the film itself.
Given a budget of roughly $90,000 (one-third of the average cost for a French film at the time) to realize his dream, Godard began casting. For the role of Patricia he wanted Jean Seberg, a young actress given the star push by Otto Preminger in his Saint Joan and Bonjour Tristesse, and about whom he had written admiringly in Cahiers du Cinema. She was readily available, as her star had plummeted after critics savaged both films. As he was acquainted with Seberg’s then-husband, Francois Moreuil, an attorney with aspirations of being a director, Godard was able to secure an interview with Seberg. She was less than impressed during their meeting, finding him to be “an incredibly introverted, messy-looking young man who didn’t even look her in the eye as she talked.” Moreuil, however, convinced her to take the role, and she signed with producer de Beauregard for $15,000. Convincing Columbia Studios to loan her out was not as easy, but Moreuil managed to get the studio to accept a small fee for her participation. To express his appreciation, Godard gave Moreuil a small part as a journalist interviewing the author Parvulesco at Orly Airport.
Some of the minor roles went to Godard’s friends. He asked Melville to play the celebrated novelist, Parvulesco. Two of the other journalists in the crowd interviewing him were producer Andre S. Labarthe and director Jean Douchet. Director Jacques Rivette had a cameo as a man Michel sees run over in the street. And, finally, Godard himself makes an appearance (a la Hitchcock) as a man who recognizes Michel outside the Herald-Tribune office and informs to the police.
For the male lead of Michel, Godard wanted Jean-Paul Belmondo. Belmondo had appeared in a few films prior, but he was virtually unknown outside France. However, the problem with securing Belmondo’s participation came from his agent, who told the actor that he would be making the biggest mistake of his life if he were to accept the lead. Belmondo, who knew Godard personally, was beholden to him for some good write-ups in Cahiers and agreed to be in the film.
Now that Godard had his leads, the next thing on his list was to work the story into a screenplay. His original plan was to film the story, adding only dialogue. But soon he realized he needed to rewrite the entire story. In the original outline, Truffaut’s antagonist, having missed the last train from Paris to Le Havre, steals a car near the Saint-Lazare station and later kills the patrolman who pulled him over. He then goes to meet his girlfriend, Betty, a young American journalist, and the chase shifts from one cinema to the next in the streets of Paris. The police arrest Betty and she gives Michel up. The police find him hiding on a barge. He gives himself up but tells them he has swallowed a fatal dose of aspirin. No one believes him, but once at the station he keels over and dies.
Godard and Truffaut worked on a treatment (officially attributed to Truffaut) that is closer to a continuity script, though without the dialogue. This version matches the locations and most of the narrative developments in the finished film. Truffaut’s vision of the anguished young man who turns to crime out of despair now becomes, in Godard’s vision, an existential hood indifferent to common morality and the law. Also, the girl, renamed Patricia, now enters the film near the beginning with their love story dominating the middle portion of the film. She has become a neophyte journalist, reduced to selling the Herald-Tribune on the street in addition to other assignments. Godard moved the opening sequence from Paris to Marseilles, where Michel pretends to read Paris Flirt while observing the pedestrian and auto traffic in front of the Vieux Port.
Filming began on August 17, 1959. Godard began by shooting the lengthy bedroom scene at the Hôtel de Suède, shooting for two hours with only a minimal crew and no lighting before running out of ideas. This proved to be the hardest location for Godard to secure, but as he was smitten with the hotel, having lived there in the early 1950s, producer de Beauregard managed to obtain permission from the hotel’s management (with a little grease, no doubt). The rest of the film was filmed chronologically, with the exception of the first scene in Marseilles, which was shot toward the end of filming.
According to Coutard, Godard discarded the screenplay he had written early on in the shoot and instead improvised by writing the dialogue day by day as production went along. He would then give the lines to the actors, have a few brief rehearsals on the day’s scenes, and then filming began. The actors found this a strange way of working causing them to sometimes forget their lines. However, since the soundtrack was to be post-synchronized later, Godard would simply solve this problem by calling out their lines to them from behind the camera.
Richard Balducci, who played Tolmatchoff, stated that the shooting days ranged anywhere from 15 minutes to 12 hours, depending on how many ideas Godard had that day. When he ran short of ideas he would cancel the day’s filming. This erratic shooting schedule angered de Beauregard to the point he wrote a letter to the entire crew complaining about it. According to Coutard, on a day that Godard had called in sick, de Beauregard bumped into the director at a café, and what began as an argument quickly escalated into a full-blown fistfight.
Despite the erratic schedule, though, filming lasted for 23 days, ending on September 12, 1959 with the final scene (where Michel is shot in the street) filmed on the rue Campagne-Premiere in Paris.
THE INFLUENCE OF SARTRE
When it comes to a deeper examination of the motivations of the central characters, Breathless is heavily influenced by the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre. His concepts of the priority of the individual versus society, the absurdity of life, Michel’s view of death as an everyday event, the impossibility of love, and the idea of “bad faith” are all found in the film. Michel is defined through his actions, not his thoughts. In fact, he barely thinks of anything outside his own immediate existence. He lives for the moment. Patricia, on the other hand, lives according to her dreams and thoughts. She lives an inner life, expressed by her attachment to art, music, and romantic versions of love. For instance, during the scene in her hotel room she poses next to a Renoir poster of a young girl and asks Michel if he thinks she’s prettier than the girl. Michel, for his part, tellingly sits beneath a Picasso poster of a man holding a mask. She thinks of tomorrow while he thinks only of today. When Patricia reads him William Faulkner’s conclusion to The Wild Palms, “between grief and nothingness, I choose grief,” Michel’s rebuttal is “Grief is a compromise. I’d choose nothingness. You’ve got to have all or nothing.”
But Michel himself is a flawed “hero,” for he lives in bad faith. For Sartre, bad faith (mauvaise foi) is a condition where an individual, under pressure from society, adopts false values and rejects his or her innate freedom to act authentically. Michel’s bad faith is expressed by his desire to be Humphrey Bogart. He’s not just a punk; he sees himself as an uber-criminal, a man totally outside the law and society, as Bogart’s characters were. When he walks by a cinema showing Bogart in The Harder They Fall, Michel takes a moment to admire Bogart’s face on the poster. Tellingly he swipes his thumb across his lip, uttering only one word, “Bogie.” He had earlier stopped to admire a poster for Robert Aldrich’s film, Ten Seconds to Hell, featuring the tag line, “Live dangerously till the end,” which brings a knowing smile to his face. He wants to be as tough as Bogart in the films he loves. He practices facial expressions in the mirror, wears a fedora, aviator-style sunglasses, runs his thumb across his lips in a constant gesture, and is never -- ever -- seen without a cigarette, removing one only to insert another. But as Godard shows, the fedora, and even the cigarette seem too big for Michel’s face. Underneath his persona, he is frightened. Even his killing of the policeman was driven by the panic of the moment, not a cool, controlled action. Michel uses this persona to hide his desperation. Note his increasing panic at finding the associates who owe him money. When he takes his newly stolen car to a shady dealer, only to discover the dealer ripping him off, he slaps the dealer around a little, grabbing enough money for a taxi, but leaving the car.
And what of Patricia? She is Michel’s opposite, but she is also wallowing in bad faith. We can read Michel right away, for he wears his persona on his sleeve, but Patricia is hollow and inscrutable, an enigma. And she is Michel’s Achilles heel. When we see him first encounter her as she sells copies of the Herald-Tribune on the streets, he tells her, “It’s crazy, but I love you.” She walks with an arched back, rebuffing Michel’s attempts to move in. Michel may be attempting to emulate the thuggish persona of Bogart, but it is Patricia who has the upper hand in their relationship. When he teasingly asks why she doesn’t wear a bra, she coldly retorts, “That’s no way to talk.” His only response is to issue a meek apology.
The manner in which Patricia detaches herself from the immediate world is also telling. She briefly ponders whether she might be pregnant by Michel, but then thinks no more about it. The more he reveals himself to her, the more her detachment grows. She learns some shocking facts: that he’s a cop killer, that he is married (though he says it ended long ago), and that he uses more than one name (aka Laszlo Kovacs). But her gamin face betrays not the slightest notion of what she is thinking. In his attempt to establish control in their relationship Michel tells her about a story he’d read in a newspaper: a bus conductor had stolen five million francs to seduce a girl. After going through the money in three days the conductor reveals to the woman that it’s stolen money; he may be a hood, but he likes her. The real point of the story is that she stuck by him, standing lookout as they were caught trying to rob fancy villas. Later, as he drives her to an interview in another car she asks what happened to the Ford. “It’s in the garage,” he answers. She never stops to question his answer, but rides along quietly. At the same time she benefits from their relationship by riding around in the expensive cars Michel swipes and dining at fine restaurants, which confirms her image as an up and coming journalist. That image, however, is confined to her inner life.
As she ascends the escalator to her meeting with a journalist who was doing favors for her in return for sex, she tells him that she doesn’t know if she’s unhappy because she’s not free, or if she’s not free because she’s unhappy. As they leave, he puts his arm around her and she yields to him. Michel spies the two of them kissing in his sports car. He has done what Michel has not been able to do - get her to submit to him.
Sartre’s theme of the impossibility of real love comes to the fore during their romp in Patricia’s bedroom. For Sartre, loving relationships are doomed to failure because they are stuck in a subject-object scheme: I cannot love the other without losing my freedom or denying the freedom of my loved one. Godard’s dialogue in the bedroom scene emphasizes the deception and stratagems both employ to enslave the other in the battle for domination. “I’ll stare at you until you stop staring at me,” Patricia says. “Me, too,” he replies. When Patricia takes a rolled up poster and frames Michel’s face, he looks totally smitten by love, totally betraying his tough guy persona, thus reversing the roles. When Michel drops his façade and admits to her in all sincerity that he wants her to stay with him, he exposes his vulnerability, enabling her to gain the upper hand. He now becomes the naïve one and she becomes the schemer. In the long bedroom scene, the two of them talk, joke, argue and fool with each other, but totally fail to understand each other. There is no coming together of lovers as one.
Patricia’s hollowness, though, is never more clearly shown than during the press conference she attends at Orly Airport. Holding the conference is the writer, Mr. Parvulesco (Melville), who speaks in terse banalities. Asked about the difference between French and American women, he answers, “French women are totally unlike American women. The American woman dominates the man. The French woman doesn’t dominate him yet.” Patricia now realizes that no matter how thuggish Michel desires to appear, he falls within Parvulesco’s framing of men.
Patricia then asks if women have a role to play in modern society, to which Parvulesco responds, “Yes, if they’re charming and wear striped dresses and dark glasses,” a reference to her appearance, which draws a slight smile. Another journalist asks him how many men can a woman love in a lifetime. “Physically, I mean.” Parvulesco begins counting on his fingers, adding large numbers. More than that,” he continues “two things matter in life. For men, it’s women, and for women, money.” Patricia’s only response is to smile broadly. When she asks Parvulesco about his greatest ambition, he answers, “To become immortal, and then die.” She pulls the sunglasses from her face, places the arm into her mouth, and in a gesture of contemplation, she gazes into the viewer’s eyes. Parvulesco has just exposed her real intentions. And thus lies the absolute distance between Michel and Patricia: Michel thinks a lot about death, while Patricia thinks of life. Michel’s significance in life might be women, but Patricia’s is not just money, but immortality, life, and that immortality does not include being subject to Michel’s scheme.
Their gulf grows during a cab ride with Michel. His anxiety about getting his money is emphasized by Godard’s frequent jump cuts. He blames Patricia for the fact he hasn’t yet received his money; he makes belligerent remarks to the driver, and becomes frustrated with Patricia’s desire to be a writer. Patricia’s response to his inquiry about her being a writer is that her intention is “to have money and not rely on men.”
When detectives track Patricia down at the offices of the New York Herald-Tribune, one shows her the cover of the newspaper with Michel’s face in full display. She initially denies knowing him, but when the detective persists and threatens her with passport trouble if she didn’t cooperate, she admits she knows him, using an excuse that the picture was old. The detective gives her his number to call when she sees him again. As she leaves the office she tips off Michel, who is waiting across the street. A detective is tailing her but she loses him by ducking into a cinema.
When they meet up shortly afterward, her doubts about the innocence of their relationship begin to surface. “And killing a policeman?” “I was scared,” Michel replies. She asks, “How did they know I knew you?” “Someone must’ve seen us together and informed on us,” “That’s horrible, informing on people,” she replies. Her face, though, betrays her thoughts; we can see her weighing the advantages and disadvantages of calling the police.
It is when they find Antonio, who owes Michel money that their relationship begins to seriously unravel. He sends them to stay at a photography studio. Patricia’s doubts about Michel begin to become manifest itself early that evening, as she tells Michel that she dumped the journalist because she had to make sure she didn’t love him first. She then asks Michel if he wants to go to bed. “Sleeping’s so sad. We have to separ…” Michel fills in the last syllable, and she reiterates the word “separate,” continuing, “You say ‘sleep together,’ but you don’t.” When Patricia looks into the camera again, her mind is made up. Michel is doomed.
The next morning he sends her to buy the France-soir newspaper for the latest details about the search. She stops into a café and reaches into her purse, pulling out the detective’s number. She ponders for a few seconds, then calls Inspector Vital and reveals Michel’s location. Returning from the café, she tells Michel she can’t go to Italy with him. She also tells him that she has informed the police as to his whereabouts: “Michel, I called the police. I said you were here. I don’t want to be in love with you.” Michel replies that, “You’re like the girl who sleeps with everyone except the one man who loves her, saying it’s because she sleeps with everyone.” With that exchange the roles have become fully reversed. It is Michel who now is unsure; Patricia has taken cool façade from him, disposing of Michel after concluding that he no longer fits within her objectives. How could she achieve her dreams of immortality by maintaining a low profile or escaping to Italy? It no longer suits her -- she has chosen money and potential immortality over Michel’s proclamations of love.
Leaving the photography studio, Michel is like a zombie. All the air has been removed from his sails. Antonio pulls up in a car and hands Michel his money. “I’m tired,” says Michel. “I want to sleep. I shouldn’t be thinking of her but I can’t help it.” Another car also stops. It’s the police, who exit the car brandishing pistols. Antonio offers Michel a pistol, but Michel refuses it. Antonio drives off, throwing the pistol at Michel’s feet. The police open fire and hit Michel in the back. He stumbles trying to escape before collapsing. The men approach, along with Patricia. Michel’s mouth opens high, expands wide, and he purses his lips looking at Patricia. As they stand over him, and life escapes from his body, he looks at Patricia and mutters softly, “C’est vraiment dégueulasse” (It’s disgusting). As he dies, Patricia turns to the policeman, asking what he said. The answer: “Il a dit: ‘Vous êtes vraiment une dégueulasse’” (He said: “You are a disgusting person”). She now stares directly into the camera and traces her lips with her thumb in the way Michel has done in imitation of Bogart. The final words of the film are now uttered by Patricia: “Qu’est que c’est: dégueulasse?” (What does that mean, dégueulasse?) That she fails to even understand his dying words sums up the flawed nature of their relationship. It doesn’t matter, though, for by her final gesture she reveals that she has become Michel.
GODARD AND SARTRE
Besides the influence of Sartre in the film’s plot, Godard also reflects Sartre’s theory of aesthetics. In fact, it might be said that he is a child of Sartre inasmuch as when Godard was reaching intellectual maturity, it as Sartre who dominated the French literary and artistic scene. For Sartre, authentic art comes from artists who extend the sacred tradition only when they forget that tradition and forge a new art for the present age with contemporary tools of expression. Each and every true thought must be reinvented; if not, it will wither and die on the library shelf.
Godard applies Sartre’s views by stating that cinema is the medium where “reticence, as it were, is unable to hide its secrets; the most religious of arts, it values man above the essence of things and reveals the soul within the body.” (Godard on Godard, p. 80)
For Sartre, it was not the realism of film, or its social and political importance, that was central; it was the energy and the illusions film creates. Like many French filmmakers of his time, Sartre was influenced by surrealism, the everyday, and the accidental transformed into the magical. Film’s rhythm, harmony, integration of motifs, and its ability to produce different themes simultaneously made for a unique attraction, especially as it affects our consciousness. Sartre’s contemporary and companion, Simone de Beauvoir, in her volume of memoirs, The Prime of Life, credited cinema with shaping much of Sartre’s mature philosophy, especially for his view of the absurdity inherent in the world’s condition.
Like the New Wave, Sartre embraced American films because of their difference from the French films. This difference sprang from an entirely new set of assumptions and perceptions of what the cinema could be, perceptions that went beyond the cinema to the way life might be led. As with the surrealists, it was a celebration of the improper, the asocial, the despised, and the disrespectful; it was unconventional, not in accordance with what art is or “should” be. Sartre’s contemporary, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, valued film because in the cinema, we are constantly immersed in a world. This is what Godard means when he states that cinema reveals the soul within the body. There are no secrets in cinema; everything is on display.
Godard takes these dictums and pushes them to the limit. Of all the directors in the New Wave, he is the most “American.” It might be said that his early films are the cousins to American pop culture, and of the New Wave directors, he had the most immediate impact on American pop culture. We see one American pop reference right at the beginning, when Godard dedicates the film to Monogram Pictures. Truffaut had wanted to use a quotation from Stendhal (“We are going to speak of dreadful things”) as the opening citation. Breathless is perhaps the most self-conscious film in terms of its display of American consumer items, especially automobiles, and iconography, seen on the scene where Michel admires the poster of Bogart, and the jazz score.
BETWEEN THE LINES
Breathless is also filled with references to art, literature, and cinema in general. Painters Renoir, Picasso and Klee are referenced, as well as writers Faulkner, Dylan Thomas, Louis Aragon, and Dashiell Hammett. (The scene where a character criticizes Michel for wearing silk socks with a tweed jacket is lifted from Hammett’s novel, The Glass Key.) And there are references to American director and their movies: When Patricia rolls up the Renoir poster and looks at Michel through it is a homage to Sam Fuller’s Forty Guns, which uses a shot through a barrel of a gun that cuts to a couple kissing. Later, when Patrica is trying to shake the police tail, she ducks into a cinema playing the film, Whirlpool, directed by Otto Preminger. There’s also a reference to Preminger’s Where the Sidewalk Ends, as well as Richard Quine’s Pushover. Joseph H. Lewis, who directed the 1949 Gun Crazy, is referenced in the scene where Michel tells Patricia the anecdote about the bus conductor and the scene is the taxi. And at the end, Patricia’s “What does that mean, dégueulasse?” echoes Ida Lupino’s blank stare at Bogart’s dead body and asking what it means “to crash out” in Raoul Walsh’s 1940 classic, High Sierra. The references to so many film noirs is interesting in light of what Godard is trying to do: make a film noir that breaks down the form of a film noir. This is an explicit homage to Sartre’s theory that the artist must forge new ideas from traditional ones.
Despite the fact that Godard was trying to make a film noir, what he actually came up with was more of a noir comedy. Unlike other noirs, Breathess feels unreal -- it is self-conscious, which will dictate the movie’s style. This self-consciousness is best seen in the films many inside jokes. For instance, when Michel (who, besides the real life Michel Portail, is based on womanizing screenwriter Paul Gegauff) goes to see the gangster Tolmatchoff (Balducci) at his travel agency for the money he is owed, they discuss Bob Montagne (the lead character of Melville’s 1955 noir, Bob le flambeur, or Bob the Gambler), and it’s mentioned that Bob is now in jail. When Tolmatchoff gives Michel a check he won’t cash, Michel notes, “Bob the gambler would have cashed my check.” The police later visit Tolmatchoff to hustle him for information. Other noirs would stage this scene in a dive bar, or at a place like the docks, but for Godard, it’s the cue for another inside joke. He stages it at Tolmatchoff’s travel agency, where the gangster is leaning lazily against a counter, playing with a model airplane. There he gets the spiel to turn in Michel. The cops tell him it shouldn’t be difficult to rat Michel out; after all, he had done the same thing earlier to Bob Montagne.
Another reference occurs when Patricia learns Michel also uses the alias of Laszlo Kovacs. Some have mistakenly concluded that Godard was referring to the renowned Hungarian-American cinematographer, but the truth of the matter was that Godard had not met Kovacs. The name, “Laszlo Kovacs,” was the name of Belmondo’s character in Chabrol’s 1959 film, A Double Tour. And even Godard’s former place of employment was not exempt: while Patricia is selling copies of the Herald-Tribune, a young woman appears, selling copies of Cahiers du Cinema.
This feeling of the absurd, the unreal, was the result of the process of production. Godard wrote the script form his accumulated notes as he went along, and though the locations were planned ahead, what occurred within them was not. The very process he used to shoot the movie, filming it verite in the style of a documentary with light equipment and almost no crew, is the very thing that gives it such an absurd and surreal feeling. Noirs by such directors as Hawks and Lang (both of whom Godard admired greatly) took a tightly scripted and processed story, to which they added the human element. Godard begins with the human element: the spontaneity, rhythm, and everydayness, which he stylized through the use of jump cuts and other editing tricks. To this he then adds the plot, such as it is. Thus, the gangster story we come to expect is turned into a film about two lovers in contemporary Paris. The middle section of the film, where Michel and Patricia fool around, talk, and do things that any ordinary pair of lovers might do, with the only accompaniment being a recording and the cacophonous street noise of everyday Paris, is striking in its very lack of action.
Given its beginning, with Michel stealing a car and later killing a motorcycle cop, we form the expectation of a grimy noir, set in the seedier parts of Paris, as Melville gave us in Bob le flambeur, or Jules Dassin in Rififi. What we get instead is a commonplace Paris, a Paris of wide boulevards, cafes, offices, and nice hotels. Yet, it’s the conflict between the characters and the setting that sharpens the film and sets it apart from its predecessors, whether in France or Hollywood. Even Michel’s death and the events leading up to it is shot in a low-key manner. We can’t imagine Hawks, Huston, Walsh, Dassin, or Lang being so laid back in the scene where Patricia tells Michel that she has just dimed him out. In fact, the gangster plot at times seems like an unnecessary intrusion into Godard’s panorama of the contemporary Paris of his day, for what sticks with us long after the move ends are the images of the flow of everyday Paris life; not the gangster doings, which often seem like an afterthought. In subsequent films such as A Woman is a Woman, Vivre Sa Vie, Band of Outsiders, and Two or Three Things I Know About Her . . ., the city of Paris itself is as much as character as the actors in the plot.
Breathless was an immediate hit, both with the public (it returned a profit of more than 50 times its cost) and the critics. Even before its release it won the annual Jean Vigo Prize (January 1960), given to films made with an independent spirit. The film was remade in 1983 with Richard Gere, who showed that he had none of the star power of Belmondo.
Over the years both the film and its director’s style have influenced a generation of young filmmakers. Directors such as Richard Lester, Seijun Suzuki, John Woo, and Ringo Lam were influenced both by the movie and the director. In the U.S. today, Godard’s most ardent disciple is Quentin Tarantino, who even named his production company, A Band Apart, after the title of a Godard film. In fact, we may well say that, if not for Godard, Tarantino might not exist, at least not in his present form.
Godard himself, who reportedly was never happy with his finished product, claimed that his 1975 film, Numero deux, was a remake of Breathless. However, be that as it may, more than 50 years later, Breathless still has the power to mesmerize and influence a new generation of filmgoers.