A Bout de Souffle (1959)

aka: Breathless

D: Jean-Luc Godard
S: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg

It is difficult to define the appeal of A Bout de Souffle. Certainly its exuberant combination of affection for 'bad' gangster movies and its aesthetically radical exploding of convention make it an exciting and unpredictable cinematic journey. But over the years its shock value has decreased and the level of impact it can achieve is now limited. Its use of the jump cut, so stunning to contemporary audiences, is now the stuff of music videos. Its raw sexuality and honesty about human relationships now seems tame and tired in the wake of the more explicit, hateful, and introspective films which followed (some of them directed by Godard himself). But it is a film of contradictions and paradoxes, and retains its power to engage the viewer and take them along with it. It is at once familiar and unusual, humorous and ironic, tragic and nihilistic. It oscillates between foci; shifting mood, tone, and even language from scene to scene, leaving the viewer with the sense that all this agitation must be adding up to something, though you're never quite sure just what.

The dichotomies which drive the film are fixed in the persona of its hero, Michel Poiccard, a Bogart-worshipping, chain-smoking, libidinous car thief, so at odds with the world around him that his criminal persona is modelled on an inappropriate American model. His cultural alienation is taken its logical extension, where his infatuation with an American girl brings about his ultimate downfall.

In the role of Poiccard, Jean-Paul Belmondo captures the restlessness of the youth of his time, and brings their sense of cultural unease to bear on a film which while never as overt in its political commentary as some of Godard's later work, such as Le Petit Soldat (1963) or Week-End (1967), nonetheless is pointed in its concerns with the state of French society at a turbulent period in its history.

As the alluring, aloof, and ultimately dangerous object of his affections, Jean Seberg brings a new sense of innocence to her femme fatale persona, not so much calculating the destruction of her entrapped male as being responsible by the very fact of her femininity. It is no wonder that Godard is often accused of misogyny, and that his contribution to François Truffaut's scenario was largely centred on this character.

But there is no real sense of blame in A Bout de Souffle. Even the final scene where Belmondo's last words are mistranslated is an ironic commentary rather than an explicit statement. In keeping with the conventions of the gangster film, our hero is a likable child under the tough exterior, and his acts of violence are not malevolent, but rather an impulsive reaction to societal entrapment.

Similarly, Godard's outrage is dissipated by the film's lack of definitive focus. At once in love with the cinema and eager to drive it beyond the expected norms, his political modernism is often subject to his film buff's heart. Truffaut is probably partly responsible for this, as the story was originally written as the second part of his fictional autobiography; following his depiction of his own formative experiences in Les 400 Coups (1959). Truffaut's softer touch and warmer heart may have infected Godard's frustrated misanthropy to the extent that the film never achieved quite the equilibrium needed for a truly coherent political perspective.

But this may be all to the good, because the film's restlessness is its defining characteristic. Its original title, loosely translated as Breathless for international release, may also be read as 'out of breath', which has much less romantic connotations, and more accurately captures the sense of exhaustion that must eventually overwhelm its characters and its world.

At once desperate and inspiring, Godard's A Bout de Souffle remains among the greatest films ever made. And like so many others in that hallowed canon, its inclusion is less the result of deliberate 'artiness' than the sense that its contradictions and innovations emerge from a genuine feeling for the cinema.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.