The cinema world is celebrating the 60th anniversary of the release of the French New Wave classic A Bout de Souffle/Breathless. At one level, Jean-Luc Godard’s debut feature film is a low budget, American B-movie inspired tale of betrayal and thwarted love. At another, it captures the moral ambience and zeitgeist of post-war France and Europe when a young generation of artists was sweeping away the old social, cultural and artistic injunctions.
Breathless was made by a 29-year-old Godard against the grain of the firmly entrenched French “cinema of quality” that he and his colleagues at the film magazine Cahiers du Cinema (co-founded by the great film critic and theorist Andre Bazin) condemned. Railing against its tendency to favour literary adaptation and studio-based “aquarium lighting”, they advocated a personal cinema written with a “camera-pen” (le camera stylo) that another filmmaker-theorist, Alexandre Astruc, had called for a decade before. Their theories proposed that the cinema should be as free a tool of expression as the pen of the novelist and the poet – notions that are widely accepted today but considered mistaken or at best avant- garde at the time.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, this youthful and rebellious spirit inspired more than a dozen first time filmmakers – among them Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer – to conceive of a cinema that came to be termed the French New Wave or Nouvelle Vague. It was, perhaps, cinema’s overdue equivalent of nineteenth-century French Impressionist painting or the subsequent Cubist movement led by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. The New Wave was an artistic revolution that changed the subject and tone of the film medium, but retained its formal beauty and deepened its engagement with life.
Among the pathbreaking stylistic innovations in Breathless were Raoul Coutard’s location shooting on the grey, bustling streets of Paris, the fluid camera movements in enclosed spaces, the seemingly spontaneous acting, and, yes, the notorious jump-cuts. These gave the film’s narrative a feel of events and life unfolding naturally before our eyes without the intervention of the filmmaker and his crew. The ability of cinematography to touch and become one with the real world had perhaps never been so fully realised. This was the quality that Godard and his fellow New Wave critics-turned-directors had admired in the great silent films they saw together at the pioneering archivist Henri Langlois’s Cinematheque Francaise and in the works of Jean Renoir, Roberto Rossellini and Alfred Hitchcock.
Who can forget the shock and exhilaration of Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo playing a petty thief who styles himself on Humphrey Bogart’s gangster persona) addressing the audience and telling us to “Go to hell” if we don’t love France, its countryside, the seashore, mountains and cities? Soon, he is on the run after casually shooting a policeman.
Or the glorious tracking shots of Patricia (Jean Seberg as a fledgling American novelist and journalist living in Paris) on the Champs Elysee selling copies of the New York Herald Tribune as Martial Solal’s jazz music score caresses her every gesture and movement.
Or the long sequence in Patricia’s apartment with her moody conversation with Michel intercut with prints of Renoir and Picasso paintings on the walls and Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto playing on a tinny sounding record player. The Belle Americaine and Jean Gabinesque Frenchman are going their separate ways, and destiny is playing out its cruel hand as demanded by the cinematic codes of gangster and noir films.
Or again, the sequence of Patricia’s interview at Orly airport with the fictitious novelist Parvulescu (a cameo by the legendary director of French noir films, Jean-Pierre Melville) where he answers her question, “What is your greatest ambition in life?” with the deadpan “To become immortal and then die.” The soundtrack of the entire sequence is overlaid with the sonic boom of planes taking off and landing that has a mysterious affinity with the rapid Q&A format of the interview.
Or, the climax of the film when, after being betrayed to the police by Patricia, a fatally wounded Michel runs and staggers on an endless cobbled street before he collapses, grimaces at her and says “C’est vraiment degueulasse!” (“This is really disgusting.”) A whole generation of cinephiles shared his pain and heartbreak as Patricia looks on uncomprehendingly at what she has done, mimics Michel and Bogart’s gesture of rubbing the side of her thumb across her lips and turns away over a fadeout.
While Parvulescu’s above quoted paradoxical statement and Patricia’s own, “ I don’t know if I am unhappy because I am not free, or if I am not free because I am unhappy” perhaps no longer have the same cachet as they did 60 years ago in the heyday of existential philosophy, the film as a whole still has the feel and freshness of wet paint that has miraculously never dried.
The influence of Breathless and Godard’s other films that followed during the 1960s was immense – on both his contemporaries and subsequent generations of filmmakers. To mention just a few landmark films: Vera Chytilova’s Daisies, Glauber Rocha’s Antonio das Mortes, Mrinal Sen’s Calcutta 71, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express. Each of these films echo what Godard stated in an interview after the release of Breathless, “I wanted to give the impression of just finding or experiencing the processes of cinema for the first time.”
Today, aged 89, Godard still continues to make films in his studio in Lausanne, Switzerland. Though his films in the recent decades are different, in that they are primarily video essays that explore history, politics and culture, each of them continues to have a sense of discovery and invention that was already present in the first chapter of his brilliant career – the audacious, evergreen and poignant Breathless.