À bout de souffle

(Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard, France, 1960)


I don't want you, if I want you.
No, I don't want you, or rather if
I want you, I don't know,
It's funny, I don't know,
I want you to not want you.

Jean-Luc Godard wrote this sinuously ambivalent speech for the young actor Jean-Paul Belmondo to speak in a short film of 1958, Charlotte et son Jules. A year later, they embarked on a film that was to make them both cult stars, and find a key place in cinema history – À bout de souffle.

Godard brought together a fantastic array of talent for this debut feature. Fellow Nouvelle Vague directors François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol (who had already made their first features) chipped in with creative contributions and support. Cinematographer Raoul Coutard invented new ways of filming lightweight and on the run – to the extent of letting himself be pushed around in a shopping trolley by Godard. The enfant terrible director even lured a Hollywood star into the project: Jean Seberg, then a tomboy-gamine famous the world over for her roles in Otto Preminger's Bonjour Tristesse (1958).

The filming was spontaneous, even chaotic – much to Seberg's professional chagrin. Godard started out as he did for all his films thereafter – with only a few pages of script (broad strokes, he called them) and a head full of ideas. He shot without sound, making up things as he went along, throwing in all manner of private in-jokes, allusions and references. Godard studiously maintained an ignorance of the conventional rules of filmmaking, resulting in hours of footage that were impossible to edit in any normal fashion.

So, at the final stage of post-production, he put the film together in a deliberately ragged, disconcerting, discontinuous way, from shot to shot and scene to scene – by using what came to be famously known as jump cuts. Still today, the nervous, febrile editing of the film is more astonishing than many of the flashy advertisements or rock videos which latter borrowed the style.

À bout de souffle remains, as Raymond Durgnat suggested in 1988, "vivid witness to its era, in a manner transcending journalism and nostalgia alike". (1) Beyond all the surface icons of the hip late '50s – sunglasses, cool jazz, Seberg's endlessly imitated short haircut and tomboyish dress sense – there is something much deeper about that time which strikes a chord with today's audiences.

What remains of À bout de souffle today, what speaks to a contemporary, young audience – when those infamous jump cuts figure in every second TV commercial, when its stars are long dead (Seberg) or in their lazy, twilight career phase (Belmondo), when satirical comedies of manners pitting Americans against Europeans are a sitcom commonplace, when the mixture of a loose gangster-crime plot, a smart attitude, and a hip array of high and low culture citations are more likely to be attributed to Quentin Tarantino than his genuine predecessor and postmodern pioneer, Godard?

Surprisingly from an artistic iconoclast whose evolution was so rapid and whose intellectual project remains so ambitious, À bout de souffle, viewed today, seems a modest, even humble debut. There is the semblance of a thriller plot, complete with a betrayal, tailing cops, and a final shootout. There is a lovely but conventional jazz score by Martial Solal which evokes the American film noir genre. There is a vein of insolent, mildly outrageous humour pouring from Belmondo's punk motor-mouth throughout, but even that is accommodated within the Chandler-Hammett-Spillane tradition of hard-boiled, laconic talk.

The achievement of À bout de souffle is, on one level, subtle. Its formal pleasures have yet to be mined exhaustively. Whether through accident or design or both, Godard's ultra low-budget, on-the-fly shooting style produced several remarkable innovations. Eschewing direct sound recording and using total post-synchronisation led not only to an Orson Welles-style speed and inventiveness in the dialogue delivery; it also paved the way for a radical sound mix in which one can no longer spot the difference or the transitions between 'real', diegetic sounds happening within the world of the story, and extra-diegetic layers of sound imposed by the filmmaker. Likewise, filming in close quarters in small, Parisian apartments led Godard into a new form of cinematic contemplation: the visual study, in which a sequence of just slightly different views offers a cubist mosaic of the many moods and aspects of his extraordinary stars.

But it is as a modern love story that À bout de souffle retains its immense appeal for members of Generation X and beyond. The children of existentialist reflection, post-war affluence, Beat culture amoralism and pop culture insouciance, these anti-heroes treat love as a game, and their own identities as mere, makeshift masks. They are stranded between the past, traditional values which they stylishly reject, and a future way of being and relating which has not yet clearly materialised for them. Just as it has not yet materialised for us, in the succeeding millennium.

As the critic/filmmaker Luc Moullet put it in a contemporary review, À bout de souffle is "the dialogue of two lovers who are a little lost in the problems of their times". (2) Belmondo as the Bogart-like criminal Michel and Seberg as the American would-be journalist Patricia embody a new amorality born variously of bourgeois affluence, French existentialism, slow changes in gender roles, and internationalised popular culture. As in Godard's poem above, the characters are thoroughly confused about what they want of each other – or think they should want.

The old mores of heterosexual fidelity have already faded for Michel and Patricia, but there is nothing very certain that has taken their place. À bout de souffle clearly resonates here with a later cultural movement, the tales of blank, amoral youth by the likes of Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis – just as it looks back to the older Jazz Age of Scott F. Fitzgerald novels, an age whose giddy effects on interpersonal relationships is best caught in George Cukor's dazzling Sylvia Scarlett (1935).

Yet, if anything, Godard is even a little crueller and wiser in his vision than the brat novelists of the '80s and '90s. Michel kills a man without thinking twice; Patricia later betrays him with a glacial expression on her face. The characters do not feel, they play at feelings – witness Belmondo's hilarious facial muggings throughout, or his final, self-consciously melodramatic death scene. (Godard was to revisit such gangster-influenced sense of play in the sublime Bande à part, 1964).

Godard does not regard any of this with lamentation: for him, it corresponds to a kind of freedom, an 'unbearable lightness' as Milan Kundera would later call it. His characters have little sense of self – they simply go with the random flow of events, even unto death. They spend extravagantly, love freely, live glamorously, posing and playing all the while.

Although Godard is often regarded (somewhat erroneously) as the quintessential left-wing filmmaker, his attitude at the time of À bout de souffle, and for at least five years thereafter, was one that his fiercest critics were right in labelling a 'bourgeois anarchism'. Godard is the true spoiled brat of modern culture, showing with no small amount of true-to-lifeness that unstable, young middle-class which mixes bohemia and privilege, intellectualism and decadence, loose morals and good taste.

It was inevitable that, given its central place in the twin histories of modern cinema and popular culture, À bout de souffle would be remade. And remade it was, with Godard's blessing, as Breathless by Jim McBride in 1983, with Richard Gere and Valerie Kaprisky (thus reversing the American-French roles). Whatever one's opinion of this remake – I adore it, and regard it among the most underrated movies of the '80s – there is no doubt that it is a more normative, more professional and hence less daring work than the original.

Godard himself had already unveiled a different strategy for remaking his first and still most successful film. In 1975, he announced that he would be returning to commercial filmmaking (after a period of self-imposed exile in an ultra-militant ghetto) with a project called À bout de souffle numéro deux – boasting even the same producer as the original, Georges de Beauregard, so crucial to the history of the Nouvelle Vague but by then an old man.

When the film eventually hit theatre screens it was, to say the least, controversial. The title had been shortened simply to Numéro deux – "Number Two", as in the euphemism for a certain bodily function, and brutally marking as well its own commodity status. There was no gangster plot – only vignettes from the life of a three-generation family crammed into a small flat, each member suffering from either impotence, constipation, frigidity, or a host of other modern maladies. To cap it off, he shot it on video and fitted it into tiny TV sets (sometimes several at once) dotted across the movie screen image.

It's an amazing, scandalous film – no longer the work of a youthful, unbearably light man, but still a supreme gesture of cheeky anarchism at the very heart of a system of popular cinema.

The original À bout de souffle may not seem half as disturbing, confronting or difficult as Godard's strange, nominal remake. But in 1960, its casual violence, disconcerting style, open-ended philosophising and raw invention had an immediate impact which was just as powerful and unsettling. These are qualities well worth rediscovering at any point in cinema history.

MORE Godard: Aria, Contempt, Soigne ta droite, Hélas pour moi, Histoire(s) du cinéma 1A & 1B, For Ever Mozart, Masculin Féminin, Éloge de l'amour, Vivre sa vie, Sauve qui peut (la vie), La Chinoise, Made in USA, Film Socialism, Alphaville, Tout va bien

© Adrian Martin 1990/2003


1. Raymond Durgnat, "À bout de souffle", Monthly Film Bulletin, no. 655 (August 1988), p. 246. back

2. Luc Moullet, "Jean-Luc Godard", in Toby Mussman (ed.), Jean-Luc Godard (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1968), p. 34. back

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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