At the age of nineteen I was formally introduced to a man who would be the object of my enduring affection for many years to come: Jean-Luc Godard. After all, what self-respecting lady doesn’t fancy a bad boy at some stage of her life? The subversive and anarchistic dimension of Godard’s personality shines through in his films, all of which reveal a philosophy that is highly complex, anti-tradition, fiercely critical of social mores, slightly misanthropic, verging on misogynist, politically unorthodox and unapologetically unconventional. His first feature film, À bout de souffle (Breathless) was originally released in 1960 and undoubtedly changed the way cinema is both viewed and made.
Breathless is a story, not a thesis. A theme is something simple and vast that can be summed up in twenty seconds: vengeance, pleasure. – Jean-Luc Godard
As a member of the new breed of film critics writing for Cahier du Cinéma, Godard’s shift to filmmaking was inspired by the theories established through la politique des auteurs and was particularly concerned with “destroying all the old principles rather than creating something new. It’s more like Picasso’s work, destroying everything rather than creating in a new direction.” Significantly, representations of Picasso’s Cubist works are visually referenced in Godard’s cinema, thereby drawing attention to a new mode of viewing that juxtaposes high and low culture and is intensely intertextual. What sets Godard apart from his other contemporaries in the French New Wave – such, as François Truffaut, Éric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol – is his innovative mode of cinematic deconstruction.
Paying a loose homage to American film noir cinema of the 1940s, À bout de souffle focuses on a suave French gangster (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and an American expatriate (Jean Seburg) living in Paris. The narrative itself is hardly ground-breaking, but Godard’s approach to fracturing cinematic conventions is incredible. Cohesive montage is replaced by jump cuts, abrupt editing and hand-held camerawork, and studio settings are rejected in favour of location shooting, improvisation and natural light. Cinematographer Raoul Coutard, whom Godard would collaborate with on subsequent films, captures the restless energy of 1960s Paris with a beautiful sense of abandon, precariously shifting from a romantic perspective to hopeless desolation.
Godard’s quirky visual signatures are accompanied by a similarly turbulent soundtrack that utilises unexpected rhythms and overlapping sound, and even features the breakdown of the “fourth wall” when Belmondo speaks directly to the camera, and thus the viewer. Although the film aesthetics are playful, irreverent and pose a complete disregard of tradition, they also exemplify the mood of the time when the film was made: the rise of youth culture, the spread of American pop culture, a new-found sexual freedom and a liberated approach to living.
Every time I watch À bout de souffle I am reminded of why I love cinema, why I tend towards striped shirts and why I wish I were French.