Boundaries Are Fictions in Godard’s ‘Breathless’

Even now, after countless reviews and essays about Breathless, it’s easy to be captivated by the way Godard obfuscates our expectations for cinematic art.

“Well—I do not believe in the peaceful co-existence of the ‘Tradition of Quality’ and an ‘auteur’s cinema.'”

— François Truffaut, “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema”.

The pivotal moment in Breathless (À bout de souffle) is a tiny one. After taking Patricia (Jean Seberg) out to purchase a dress, runaway killer Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) waits for her outside in a nice sports car, reading a headline in a newspaper about himself. He is a highly wanted man, as numerous handbills, newspapers, and photo tickers throughout the film remind the audience.

Michel, however, isn’t the only one reading the papers: near his car, an unnamed man sizes him up, comparing him to the newspaper spread demanding public assistance for his arrest. Michel eyes this stranger; he knows the game is close to up. Patricia returns to the car, looking glamorous, and as the Bonnie and Clyde of the nouvelle vague take off down the street, the man—listed in the credits only as “Informant”—indicates to two beat cops the direction Michel has just taken.

Amidst the jazzy, effervescent script movement by director Jean-Luc Godard (who drew from a screen treatment by François Truffaut), this scene is an anomaly. To talk of “plot” and “story” with regards to Breathless is to start a conversation it is trying to side-step by its very construction. When the Informant points out Michel’s whereabouts to the police, the “plot”, if one can call it that, is brought back into the action—though only for a second. After the Informant gives the game up, Michel and Patricia are back to their free-form ways.

However, what is remarkable about the scene with the Informant is not its function as one of Breathless‘ most ordinary, plot-driven moments. Rather, it is for the man himself. Those devotees of French cinema will undoubtedly identify the Informant as none other than Godard himself, and similarly, they will likely chuckle at the meta irony of his presence. The director gives the police the information necessary for the fatalistic finalé.

This is not the only instance of a director becoming part of the landscape of the film, of course. In the scene following the informant, as part of a press conference Patricia interviews an author, Parvulesco, played by none other than the master of the French policier, Jean-Pierre Melville. (His 1956 comedic noir Bob le Flambeur is often hailed as one of the nouvelle vague‘s key progenitors.) Parvulesco answers a rash of highfalutin questions from the press: “Can one still believe in love in our time?” “Is there a difference between eroticism and love?” Patricia tries to get a question in, but Parvulesco ignores it the first time: “What is your greatest ambition in life?” Upon repeating the question, he removes his oh-so-cool shades and intones, “To become immortal, and then die.” His words have quite the impact: Patricia removes her glasses, too.

The back case of the Criterion Collection edition of Breathless boldly claims, “There was before Breathless, and there was after Breathless.” Like Citizen Kane across the pond, Breathless is one of those works of cinema that commands a great deal of writing, to the point where now doing any amount of writing about it seems a superfluous exercise. One can talk for days about how Godard eschewed the conventions of French cinema during his time. One can postulate alternative translations of Michel’s final lines, one of the movie’s most famous sticking points.

With Criterion now releasing its third edition of the film (following individual Blu-Ray and DVD versions), the phrase “greatness is a foregone conclusion” comes to mind. The folks at Criterion have been some of the leading pioneers in reviving long-lost French films; similarly, however, they also contribute to the mythos around certain cinematic selections, Breathless is a better example than most.

The paradox of the movie, however, is that while it is indeed immortal—no discussion of French cinema can exist without it—at the same time, it’s become one of those films more likely to be used as a talking point at a fancy dinner party rather than something one will casually throw into the DVD player. Parvulesco’s pithy line isn’t just a philosophical vaguery: Breathless has become immortal, but it has also died as a piece of pure cinematic entertainment, instead becoming a case study for cinema at its most daring. This folly is something that Godard would arguably not run away from: as Gary Indiana argues in his essay “The Last Weekend“, beginning in the ’60s Godard’s later work consisted of “ideologically oversaturated films that were more like Marxist-Leninist slide lectures than movies.”

To be sure, Breathless is the linchpin moment in the career of Godard, a feat all the more impressive given that this was but his first full-length feature. Though he would go on to make more compelling celluloid, even just shortly after (the brilliant Hollywood music satire Une femme est une femme comes to mind), everything about his style, including his forays into overtly Marxist filmmaking in the ’70’s, is present in this most auspicious of debuts.

He sets in motion a plot and then ignores it for lengthy periods, in this movie’s case, the classic scene of Michel and Patricia in the hotel room, jumbling together humorous jabs with existential asides. He has his actors directly address the audience. His Paris is vivacious, bustling, and colorful—even in black and white. Whereas a director like Melville would ensure that a killer like Michel would spend his time in dimly lit nightclubs plumed with smoke and alleyways drowning in shadows, Godard has Michel practically dance around the city with Patricia. To categorize Breathless as noir isn’t entirely wrong, but given just how fun everyone seems to be having, the designation does seem a bit off.

In spotting these requisite traits of Godard’s, it’s easy to see how watching the film is comparable to hearing an overplayed song on the radio. The nuisance of excessive repetition is present, yes, but so too is the reminder of just why the song is overplayed in the first place. With Breathless, the latter feeling manifests in that small little happening an hour into the action, where for just an instant Godard forgets the fourth wall and plunges himself into the cinema, in a way few directors, even his nouvelle vague contemporaries, ever had.

That’s why, in the end, people continually come back to Breathless and attempt to breathe into it new lines of analysis: even still, after countless reviews and essays (this one included), it’s easy to be captivated by the way Godard obfuscates our expectations for cinematic art. The boundary between director and film, between the camera and reality—these are all fictions, and they can be transcended. With one piece of information given to two police officers, Godard changed a great deal.

RATING 8 / 10