“After all, I’m a jerk,” says the heedless Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo). The film, regarded as a seminal work of the French New Wave of cinema, is a character study in misogynistic brutishness or, as Pauline Kael called it, “Indifference to human values.” Much has been made of director Jean-Luc Godard’s innovative pacing and Raoul Coutard’s fast and loose cinematography. A fresh perspective is almost impossible; the film has been dissected and deconstructed from every conceivable angle in the past five decades since it came ashore and irrevocably transformed American filmmaking.
On the banks of the Seine, Mr. Coutard’s camera catches up with Michel just as we do. Our theater projectionist was still adjusting focus, adding quite literally to the sense of being a step behind. The original hipster, Michel sports a fedora, disastrously mixes silk socks with tweed, mimics Humphrey Bogart’s facial expressions and frequently breaks the fourth wall, “If you don’t like the sea… or the mountains… or the big city… then get stuffed!” On his way to collect debts owed to him by his Italian friend, Antonio Berrutti (Henri-Jacques Huett), a female accomplice in white helps Michel steal a sedan belonging to a military officer. The officer’s revolver happens to be hidden in the glove compartment.
Mr. Godard famously said, “All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun.” Having dispatched an officer with the gun, after foolishly speeding through a construction zone in the French countryside, Michel ditches his car and returns to Paris, to sanctuary with the girl, Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg, of whom the French press were unfairly critical following Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse and St. Joan). A naif in stripes, she sells issues of the New York Herald-Tribune on the Champs-Élysées. Patricia is a paradox. She seems too naïve to leave the oaf, periodically sleeping with him, yet aware enough to tell him, “I’m trying to decide what it is I like about you.”
In her KPFA broadcast (1961), Pauline Kael described the characters as “carefree, moral idiots.” They live moment to moment. Their words and actions are superficial and unconnected to anything meaningful. “When we talked, I talked about me, you talked about you, when we should have talked about each other.” The film is riddled with such circular dialogue, not by mistake. “I wanted to see you to see if I’d want to see you,” says Michel. The characters reside in a tautological delusion, lacking any concept of an external purpose for which one might live. Laments Patricia in another scene, “”I don’t know if I’m unhappy because I’m not free, or if I’m not free because I’m unhappy.” Or perhaps because she hasn’t yet a clue what brings happiness or freedom? It fits. Patricia quotes Faulkner, “Between grief and nothing, I’d choose grief.” She has little, if any appreciation for Faulkner’s work. Rather, out-of-context quotes are convenient, encapsulated axioms for people in need of a world view—and a great way of sounding intelligent at parties. Patricia’s journalist friend reminds her what tragedy befell Henry and Charlotte. Clearly, she never actually read The Wild Palms.
To call Michel a narcissist would imply that he’s a conscious participant. More likely that Michel’s world is narrowly guided by his fascination, and Mr. Godard’s, with the facile characters in American gangster movies; the film is dedicated to Monogram Pictures, producers of low-budget gangster flicks in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Director Quentin Tarantino would later emulate his hero, Mr. Godard, by shamelessly plugging the Shaw Bros., producers of low-budget Hong Kong martial arts shlock—inserting “Shaw Scope” title cards before his features.
Michel hasn’t the ability to process anything outside his immediate sphere of action. Perhaps, to the young student cinephiles of the day, that was Michel’s appeal. Naturally, shooting the officer was an accident easily averted if only he had noticed that the construction zone, not firing the gun into the air, was the reason he’d been pulled over in the first place.
Patricia, as Ms. Kael points out, is a much bigger narcissist. To be sure, she tolerates Michel as long as it’s convenient. She tips off Inspector Vital (Daniel Boulanger) only after she’s unable to settle on any reason why she likes him. In other words, she finally tires of him. Many viewers and filmmakers since have attempted to emulate the detachment of Michel and Patricia, probably failing to realize that Mr. Godard is satirizing vacuous pretense as much as he’s celebrating it. Indeed, whenever such characters are seriously portrayed as virtuous champions of bohemian principles, a film immediately falls apart under the crushing mass of its own hubris. To wit, Patricia’s grasp of French (and of Paris) is as superficial as she is. When Michel asks, “Are you going up or down the Champs,” Patricia replies, “What’s the Champs?” She has no idea she’s standing right in the middle of it.
At Orly Airport a celebrity figure, Parvulesco (Jean-Pierre Melville, one of the fathers of the New Wave; the other being Jean Cocteau), opines on the difference between American and French women, “French are totally unlike Americans. The American woman dominates the man. The French doesn’t dominate him yet.” Many critics have fallen over themselves with praise for Jean-Pierre Melville’s comically-blithe chauvinist, but the scene serves another purpose. It cleverly upends one’s perception of Michel and Patricia. For all Michel’s dictates to and about the other sex, it is he who is dependent. He steals money from a girl friend’s purse. He seeks refuge at Patricia’s apartment. He chases them. They don’t seem to be chasing him very often. There’s a criticism at work here, though one can’t be too sure how sincere Godard was as his camera lens leers at the backsides of women as often as Michel does.
In a 1960 interview with Frederic Rossif’s Cinépanorama, Ms. Seberg states she first fell in love with acting upon seeing Marlon Brando in The Men (1950) at the age of 12. By 17 she was studying film. Critics skewered her and Preminger for St. Joan. She handled the candid, brutal interview with grace, openly admitting her camera shyness, “To me, the camera was like a gun!” Godard, however, found his Patricia…reportedly loving Ms. Seberg’s performance in Preminger’s next film, Bonjour Tristesse, or perhaps because the Marshalltown, Iowa, girl with the horrible French accent was Patricia Franchini—an inexperienced American barely fluent in the language. Another possible explanation: Several New Wave directors, including Godard, started as critics at Andre Bazin’s Cahiers du Cinéma. It was, in her words, “a young, radical film critic” named François Truffaut who gave one of the only rave reviews of Tristesse, calling it “Preminger’s great love letter to Seberg.” Mr. Truffaut, of course, went on to write the script for Breathless.
Punctuating the film’s infamously restless pacing and editing is Martial Solal’s seemingly schizophrenic score, but listen carefully. A jazz pianist by trade, Mr. Solal’s score shifts back and forth between Michel’s theme—percussive bebop phrasing, emphasizing his improvisational, scattershot lifestyle—and Patricia’s, slowly ambling strings in the same five-note asymmetric meter, notes transposed into an opposite, descending progression—carefree yet without urgency. Michel and Patricia are attracted to and repulsed by one another—he vacillating between Patricia and other women who are less lovers than they are financial crutches, she ambivalently waffling from Michel to journalists and celebrities. At breath’s end (the literal translation of the French title), they reconnect. Michel takes a last puff of his cigarette before hurling one last jab at Patricia, “You make me want to puke.” This, however, is a mistranslation—one of several. Hate would at least be preceded by some kind of active interest in women.
In fact, the best explanation I’ve uncovered thus far comes from, of all places, the Internet Movie Database. Over the years, Michel’s final line, “Ch’uis vraiment dégueulasse,” has been misheard, mistranslated and confused. While dégueuler means “vomit,” the specific form used means either “disgusting” or, worse, “Scumbag.” But his first word, often misheard as “C’est” renders a sentence that makes no sense in context, “It’s a real scumbag.” But Belmondo, the entry argues, utters, “Ch’uis,” the informal form of je suis. In other words, he concedes, “I’m a real scumbag.” Michel’s words slightly slurred, Patricia asks Inspector Vital what he said. Vital replies, “He says you’re a real scumbag.” In the final shot, Patricia turns abruptly toward the camera and posits, “What is dégueulasse?” as if she doesn’t know. But her eyes and flat, declarative tone suggest otherwise. Together, like their countermelodies, Michel and Patricia form a zero-sum game—nothing matters. But with Michel’s death, she is left behind to ponder the consequences of their indifference.
Breathless opens Friday, August 20, at the Angelika Theater at Mockingbird Station, Dallas.
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