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A bout de souffle [1960)

To paraphrase Lester Bangs regarding The Velvet Underground, modern cinema begins with Jean-Luc Godard.  The strangest part is that Godard’s trajectory has been somewhat like that of the great French novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline.  Both would be primarily recognized in their lifetimes for their first creation.  For Céline it was the groundbreaking spleen of Voyage au bout de la nuit (1932) and for Godard the film in question (his first full-length feature).  The most criminal aspect of this whole equation is that Godard IS STILL ALIVE AND MAKING GREAT, GREAT FILMS!

For awhile, my dissatisfaction with the public’s reception of Godard over his long career led me to undervalue his earlier works (to perhaps balance out the disproportionate attention these films get in relation to his oeuvre as a whole).  What cannot be denied, however, is that Breathless (literally “at the end of breath”) is as important to film as Journey to the End of the Night (Voyage…) is to literature.  There are more similarities.  Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is not so different from Céline’s Bardamu.  The spirit of youth and anarchy run throughout these two works…all of it tied together with a dark humor which disarms as much as it offends.

The key to Godard’s film is that it is radical while also being somewhat subtle.  Perhaps this is only accurate in hindsight (considering what has followed Breathless in the cinematic canon), but the avant-garde nature of the film is really in all of the little rules it breaks.  The most oft mentioned are the jump cuts (and there are plenty of them).  A deeper reading into the history of the film might reveal that Cécile Decugis and Lila Herman were responsible for this novel approach as much as Godard.  Agnès Guillemot did not become Godard’s regular editor until Une femme est une femme (or Le Petit soldat…take your pick).  There is reason to believe that the jump cuts were mainly in the service of keeping the action going.  Along with Martial Solal’s excellent noir jazz, the pace rarely slackens but for a few contrasting scenes.

What is less-discussed is the plethora of filmic references which play like an inside joke for the Cahiers crowd.  Breaking “the fourth wall” is just one of the many transgressions which Godard takes up joyfully in this affront.  One might venture to guess that what was truly “dégueulasse” to Godard was the state of the French film industry leading up to his first real foray into direction.  At every turn, the “tradition of quality” is left in the dust as Breathless speeds away wild and free.

-PD

8 responses to “A bout de souffle [1960)

  1. I liked this movie! Can’t remember much from it to be honest, I should definitely watch it again some time 🙂

  2. It is fun how you seem to really truthfully enjoy Godard while I am not that receptive to that style. Recognising though that La Nouvelle Vague was a revolutionnary movement for cinema, asking real dialogist to write those dialogs, taking movies to film out of studios, changing the perspective of time in the movies and introducing new ways to use the camera.
    Though, A bout de souffle and les 400 coups are my favorite from him.

  3. kinneret

    I always admired Goddard but this one wasn’t really my favorite. I think that was Vivre Sa Vie. If you like Goddard, did you ever see the Czech film, “Daisies?” Daisies (Czech: Sedmikrásky) 1966. It reminds me of Goddard or the other way around. Also a terrific film and very anarchistic, satirical, and beautifully shot.

  4. Love this film I saw it for the first time 9 years ago when I was in Tampa. I ate it up. I love those old film that show Paris in the 60’s. I give you a piece of information My mom is in real estate in Paris where I am now she almost sold an apartment for Jean-Paul Belmondo who is I believe 82 years old now. He was very polite, smart, and educated also charming. My Mom loved him He ended buying an apartment from an other company. That is too bad that i was not there. I would love to meet him. I totally love this film.

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