A bout de souffle

 (Jean-Luc Godard, France, 1960) 90 minutes


Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Producer: Georges de Beauregard
Screenplay: Francois Truffaut
Cinematography: Raoul Coutard
Editor: Jean-Luc Godard
Sound: J. Maumont
Music: Martial Solal
Technical consultant: Claude Chabrol
Jean-Paul Belmondo (Michel)
Jean Seberg (Patricia)
Daniel Boulanger (Police inspector)
Jean-Pierre Melville (Author)
Liliane Ronin (Minouche)
Henri-Jacques Huet (Antonio)
Van Doude (Editor)
Liliane David (Liliane)

Reviews and notes

Godard's first feature, adapted from an existing scenario written by Francois Truffaut, spins a pastiche with pathos as joyrider Belmondo shoots a cop, chases friends and debts across a night-time Paris, and falls in love with a literary lady. Seberg quotes books and ideas and names; Belmondo measures his profile against Bogart's, pawns a stolen car, and talks his girlfriend into a cash loan 'just till midday'. The camera lavishes black-and-white love on Paris, strolling up the Champs-Elyses, edging across cafe terraces, sweeping over the rooftop skyline, Mozart mixing with cool jazz riffs in the night air. The ultimate night-time film noir noir noir... until Belmondo pulls his own eyelids shut when he dies. More than any other, this was the film which epitomised the iconoclasm of the early Nouvelle Vague, not least in its insolent use of the jump-cut.
- Chris Auty, Time Out Film Guide.

Godard's first feature is as fresh as ever... If Truffaut's debut, Les Quatre cents coups, beats it to their common style, this more mercurial, coolly pathos-free, follow-up wonderfully complements its stable-mate. Godard and Truffaut's briefly shared style (regularly misattributed to the New Wave as a whole) was one response to an unprecedented conjunction of inspirations and opportunities. Technical developments suddenly extended the range, finesse and facility of reality-watching, and of expressive formalisms, and of their combination. Production costs plummeted. New youth and art-house audiences coincided with new subject matter: a bourgeois cultural revolution in sexual morality, social mobility, cosmopolitanism, education. The Cahiers ethos was largely bourgeois or conservative, and A BOUT DE SOUFFLE is entirely and radically incompatible with the mid-60s bourgeois-left-radicalisms which mistook Godard for a cultural leader.

This irresistibly insolent movie remains vivid witness to its era, in a manner transcending journalism and nostalgia alike. It's not just its observation of significant forms then new (sunglasses all over, the skirts whose freely billowing forms Michel abuses, his wide-boy clothes, Jean Seberg's cropped hair, the film's MJQ-style cool jazz, its bleached-and-fidgety look). There's a deeper resonance with a new, and crucial, social stratum, a virtual lumpenbourgeoisie, mixing young media people, hip students, criminal money getting into the leisure industry (like Tolmatchoffs), smart-thoughtful spiv-drifters like Michel. His Cinecitta job appropriately evokes the overlapping world of La dolce vita.

This film's specific issues (underworld loyalty, love's treachery) vividly paraphrase the alienation from old moral expectations that was swiftly spreading amongst educated youth. In particular: sexual transactions, freed at last from moral disrepute, promptly seemed void, because innocuous; and moral free-thinking unleashed so many moral codes as virtually to compel sensations of treachery.

Michel personifies a not uncommon mixture of (a)moral idels: a French strain of 'live dangerously' macho; Bogartin mellow; anarcho-romanticism; and Sartre's admiration for criminal outsiders as nay-sayers of great integrity; all combined with realistic pettiness, ignominy and callowness (Michel's perfect indifference at killing a man). The problems and paradoxes of such positions win Michel our sympathy as a morally honest loser, as lucidly foreseen in his, and the film's, first speech: "After all, I'm a cunt. But - one must!" That mix of absurdism and voluntarism inspires Michel's mime, the set of facial expressions that becomes a leitmotif. He sets his jaw (or silently screams?), smiles (or shows his teeth?), and scowls (or looks worried), then thoughtfully rubs his thumb along his lips. As if to say: "All attitudes are arbitrary. But - one must!"

Patricia represents a less heroic, more viable mixture: bourgeois egoist, little girl lost, early feminist. She's Bardot's drier, more cerebral, soul-sister, but also, alas, an American Friend (in Wenders' sense); her treachery contrasts with two crooks' loyalty. Belmondo and Seberg play with rare finesse, pulling us right inside their potentially derisory characters.

Not that the film is a simple choice, or conflict, between their specific positions. Godard's subtle and mordant dialogue involves a wide range of anti-moral positions, extending his film's 'content' far beyond its narrative (which can rarely structure, and never define, a text's meanings). Here Godard applies his gifts as philosophical prankster to a certain morality of action, as thoroughly as Weekend will involve itself with an absence of morality in action. The earlier film is traditional drama, in that Godard still feels with and through characters in situations; Weekend progressively foreshortens them while refocusing on (and, alas, resenting and refusing) language and form.

In A BOUT DE SOUFFLE, the traditional method allows Godard to keep playing his ace, the intimation of moral and philosophical issues and finesses through casual, conversational terms. This essentially verbal strength is concentrated in four sequences: Michel's drive to Paris (a fine filmic 'soliloquy'), the lovers' dialogues, the Parvulesco interview, and the finale. Much of the rest is mechanical stuff, though saved by context and speed. In the interiors, the results of 'wheelchair-camera' almost justify the technicians' derision - and Seberg's distress - at the production. The plethora of half-averted faces and backs-of-heads facilitated add-on dialogue during post-synching, Fellini-style, and induce an - entirely appropriate - psycho-moral unease. The editing corroborates stories that Godard, having shot without knowing the continuity rules, vainly strove to edit the film conventionally until, with desperate inspiration, he topped and tailed every shot, leaving the middle sections juxtaposed by jump cuts. Which intensifies the flip, hip feeling of the new, jazzy, free-form montage idiom established by Truffaut.

Godard works it very skilfully, the fusillades of close-ups of Jean Seberg's head having a Miles Davis feel. Some fine 'classical' effects occur, notably in the killing of the cop, where cutting wonderfully expresses reflex, panic, switched fate. The Griffithian iris-ins evoke lost purity. The looks and direct address into camera, far from inducing Brechtian alienation, or spectator guilt over 'voyeurism', suggest sincerity (even via insolence), thus intensifying spectator identification. The subtitle dedicating the film to Monogram is a vague gesture, or ploy to amaze critics, excuse cheap flaws, plead unpretentiousness, and underline this film's enormous differences from Monogram's notoriously, and really dull dim product.

Despite the movie references, the film's genre ingredients are all French noir: humanly vulnerable gangsters (Becker, Melville), doomed lovers, treacherous women, finessed psychology, alfresco realism a la Renoir. Its soul-brother is Tirez sur le pianiste (also 99.9% French, notwithstanding its literary source). The two films' gangster-waif overtones might just be Truffaut's input. No Chabrol touch is discernible, though his commercially 'hot' name must have reassured the producer.
- Raymond Durgnat, Sight and Sound, August 1988.

16mm print screened in 2003
35mm print screened in 2006 as part of a Godard retrospective

Weblink: Review by Tom Dawson, Total Film, July 2000

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