‘Breathless’ proves the greater significance of French New Wave cinema
In 1969, an American reporter told acclaimed French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard, “You’re attacking culture now the way people used to attack religion.” Godard responded, “Yes, it’s the same thing.”
Quentin Tarantino has looked to Godard as one of his main artistic influences while he established his style as a director. Many have equated Tarantino as Godard’s modern-day equivalent.
Writing for SLANT, critic Kenji Fujishima coupled the pair as two parts of a whole. She said,
“If Godard is a reflection of a politically-conflicted, self-aware, industrializing society, Tarantino is perhaps an example of Godard’s convictions taken to a perversely logical conclusion.”
While Tarantino and Godard now have an infamously tense relationship, the larger significance and potent commentary of Godard’s early work have gone unremembered in modern cinema.
Godard, along with his contemporaries, pioneered a revolutionary style of filmmaking. A kind of filmmaking that strove to redefine the director as an intrusive presence in the experience of their audiences.
To do so, Godard introduced revolutionary concepts of filmmaking. He was the jump-cut trendsetter and the 180-degree rule purposeful violator. All were techniques that made his audience conscious of the fact that they were watching a film.
After the liberation of France from Nazi control, Secretary of State James F. Byrnes and a representative for the French government, Leon Blum, organized a deal to wipe away France’s war debt by opening American markets to French consumers.
This agreement was called the Blum-Byrnes Accords. It shaped French culture at unprecedented rates and included a kick-start of French New Wave, one of the most influential movements in the history of cinema.
Godard’s films were born from the intellectual community of young New Wave cinephiles who were united by Andre Bazin’s journal Cahiers du cinéma.
The Cahiers critics embraced mise-en-scène aesthetics and highlighted the idea of breaking all conventions to the point where the audience becomes hyper-aware of the fact that they are watching a film.
In the eyes of French filmmakers, Hollywood producers were seen as “cultural colonizers” whose power over European markets directly related to a pointed manipulation of the film distribution.
Godard’s quintessential film, Breathless, both emerged from and responded to the cultural implications of the Blum-Byrnes Accords.
Breathless was an extended investigation of French cinema being pushed into the shadow of Hollywood dominance. It essentially asked the question if an identity informed by another nation’s culture can exist at all?
Godard comes to the conclusion that to be able to do so would be impossible.
The film follows Michel Poiccard, a wandering criminal who shoots a policeman after stealing a car. While on the run from authorities, Michel develops an intimate relationship with an American woman, Patricia.
At the end of the film, Patricia betrays Michel to the police, an event that eventually leads to his death.
In making Breathless, Godard followed Bazin’s basic principle of a complete rejection of the traditional, American, montage aesthetic, in which the style continuity and editing were supposed to be absolutely invisible to the audience.
Both Godard and Bazin believed in the revolutionary concept: la politique des auteurs, a philosophy that dictated that exemplary films should have the distinct signature of the director who created it.
While la politique des auteurs was not meant to lambast American directors, Godard’s filmmaking tactics purposely pushed the boundaries of what, at the time, was considered “acceptable” filmmaking–a field of practice that was largely defined by Hollywood itself.
Michel models himself off the film persona of the famous Hollywood actor Humphrey Bogart in a similar manner by which Breathless both models and parodies itself as a classic American Noir movie.
Therefore, to follow the progression of Michel’s character is to examine the argument concerning the negative effects of the Blum-Byrnes Accords that Godard is suggesting.
The film opens with a shot of Michel dressed like a parody of an American gangster–a trilby pulled low over his face, massive cigarette, and an obnoxiously patterned suit–while mimicking a move attributed to Bogart.
Michel steals an American car from an American military officer and then proceeds to find the American’s gun in the glove compartment.
This final action not only completes Michel’s character as a criminal but also triggers the inciting incident of the film whereby Michel shoots the police officer that chases him, setting the rest of the events in the film in motion.
In the middle of the film, the connection between Michel and Bogart becomes even more overt. Michel examines a larger-than-life poster of Bogart for his final film The Harder They Fall (1956): in this shot, Michel’s reflection is literally dwarfed in Bogart’s shadow.
This shot is reflecting the fact that Michel’s lack of identity cannot be supplemented by just mimicking a symbol of classic Hollywood.
Film critic Dennis Turner says that this moment is an example of Lacan’s mirror stage, which describes the milestone in a child’s development in which they are able to recognize themselves in the mirror.
While the infant recognizes a unity with its reflected image, this image of a unified body and mind does not correspond with the infant’s weak state. The infant aspires to that unity by projecting itself into the place of the “other.”
This reflects an interaction between the identities of Michel and Bogart, in which the audience is clued into Michel’s lack of identity without the reflection of the Hollywood star.
Movie critic A.O. Scott agrees with this analysis, writing that with this scene, Godard tells his audience that Michel a cinematic construct, unknowingly utterly incapable of achieving the ideal he projected onto an emblem of American culture.
This directly translates into an adept criticism by Godard concerning the French trying to emulate and adopt American culture.
The finale of the film drives home Godard’s message that the unity between Patricia, Michel’s American girlfriend, and Michel–which mirrors the unity between France and America both during and after the Blum-Byrnes Accords–is inherently exploitative.
Patricia, betraying Michel to the cops, watches as Michel is gunned down.
This scene, which became a cultural touchstone after the film’s release, is one long, relatively unbroken shot as Michel stumbles down the street, pressing his hand against his bullet wound until he collapses.
The soundtrack here is loud and intrusive. It sounds like something that would be at the climax of an action scene in a Bond movie. Not the music one would expect to accompany the tragic death of the main character.
The symbolism here is clear: the union between Patricia and Michel was never going to work. Patricia violates Michel’s love in the same way that Hollywood, with the help of the American government, violated French theaters.
By 1948, barely two years after the Blum-Byrnes Accords, 222 American films populated French cinemas. This number, compared to the 89 French films, and only 8 films from other countries released that year, understandably shocking for French filmmakers.
This final sequence clearly illustrates how Godard viewed the only possible outcome for the French film’s cultural identity if they attempted to move with–as opposed to against–the grain of the American culture forced upon them.
In an adept and incredibly “meta” twist, Breathless itself, with its purposeful break from all traditional conventions, the use of jump cuts, and breaking of the fourth wall is the solution to the problem Godard sees.
It successfully goes against the grain of the American cinematic precedent.
American economic dominance over French culture produced a cognitive dissonance for the identity of French filmmakers. Breathless wants to identify with the Hollywood filmmaking it admires.
However, Godard is conscious of the fact that such an identification is utterly impossible.