À Bout de Souffle (Movie Review)

Movie Review
À Bout de souffle (Breathless)
Starring: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg
Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard

Very few films can change how films are both watched and made. Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle (1960) not only changed how movies were made but defined how they should be made. Godard’s use of editing, sound, mise en scene, and the story helped make this film regenerate new thinking on how a film should be crafted and begin the French New Wave of cinema. 

For someone who has only watched movies that strictly stick with the classical Hollywood style of filmmaking, the editing of this film would make someone have a seizure. The most blatant “disregard for the rules” is Godard’s use of jump cuts within a scene. He would focus in on a character and as they spoke, he would jump cut to another scene while still focusing to the same character sitting in the same chair or car and the character continuing their dialogue. The scenery around them changes around them changes but the dialogue stays intact, giving the feeling that they’ve been talking for quite some time. There are many examples of this in the movie such as at the beginning of the movie when Michel is driving through the countryside at the very beginning of the movie, in the various scenes when Michel and Patricia drive about town, and when Michel and Patricia are riding in the taxi midway through the movie, among other scenes. Godard did this for a variety of reasons. He did it to condense time, but still give the illusion of the scenes taking place over an extended period of time. As well, it gave the film an edgy, rough look to it; very unpolished. Additionally, Godard did it to break the rules. This type of jump cutting within a character’s dialogue not something that was done in 1960 (and still isn’t common today) and was one of the many ways that Godard was telling everyone that films did not have to be prefabricated and conform to a set rule list.

Godard, in another attempt to shorten the time of the movie, under-dramatized some scenes that, in any other movie, would have been the complete opposite and perhaps overdone. An example of this would be at the beginning of the movie when Michel shoots the police officer. Michel pulls out the gun, tells the officer he’s going to shoot him if he doesn’t leave him alone, and pulls the trigger, all within a matter of seconds. There are a couple of quick jump cuts there as well within the noticeably brief period. The idea surrounding the film’s editing was quite brilliant. We see gun, we hear bang, we see someone fall down; therefore, someone has obviously been shot and killed. Godard didn’t feel that wasting a whole lot of time on a standoff would be complementary to the story. Instead, a quick instantaneous scene of someone getting shot does the trick. As well, the editing captures Michel’s frame of mind; panicked, instinctive and scared. Paradoxically, there are scenes of nothing but pure dialogue that are quite long. In fact, there is a scene involving Michel and Patricia in her apartment that lasts over 20 minutes long. Most of that time is basically them lying in bed and talking about random stuff involving their lives and what they are thinking. Godard thought that these scenes were important because it resembles real life; people talk to each other about nothing and everything at the same time. It also humanizes the characters. We can emphasize with Michel now that we know that he’s not simply some crook and murderer; we know now that he has feelings and concerns just like anyone else.

Sound was something else the Godard liked to experiment with. His techniques involving background sound was ingenious at the time. Instead of editing out sounds that didn’t fit into the movie, he allowed them to remain in the final soundtrack. During the 20-minute scene in Patricia’s apartment, there are sounds that are coming from outside the apartment, including the sound of an ambulance rushing by. This technique as well helped make the movie seem less like a movie and a window into the lives of the people in it. When background music is heard, half the time it’s diegetic because either one of the characters are listening to the radio or to a record. When it’s nondiegetic, it’s to emphasize dramatic effect such as when Michel gets shot. Background music is probably one of the only areas that Godard was not revolutionary, but his use of background sound was.

Godard seems to have a really weird way of mise en scene. His actors don’t seem like they are acting, which is barely noticeable for a movie quite heavy with dialogue. The only actor that seems to display any emotion at all is Michel. Patricia always seems have an innocent pondering look on her face, as if she’s unsure about everything. There aren’t any heavy-dramatized scenes, even when Michel dies. You can tell Patricia’s sadness and disbelief, but she’s not bawling her eyes out, cursing the sky and yelling “Why?”. Everything seems natural, complementing the style of the film. The lighting is natural as well. Most of the scenes are shot outside, in a room with bright lights or a giant window or two allowing sun to engulf the room. When there isn’t any real reason there should be light, there is none. In the scene when Michel and Patricia are walking through the tunnel to avoid paying for the taxi fare, the tunnel is completely dark except for a small light at the end of it, when they get closer to the end where the light is, the tunnel gets brighter, although not bright enough that you can only see the figures of the characters and not what they look like. At nighttime, the light illuminating from the building of Paris act as the lighting for the characters, rather than obvious fake light which would have compromised various night scenes such as the one at the café when Michel finally meets up with Antonio. The lighting is dark with nothing brightening the scene except for streetlamps and the lights on the signs of buildings. In addition to the lighting, the use of actual locations rather than having it all done on a private lot was quite different from other movies at the time. The movie was shot in the streets of Paris (which at times would make passers by look into the camera or the actors weirdly, wondering what was going on). It opened up the scenery of the film and it looked like it was taking place in the real world.

The plot and overall narrative would be considered bizarre for a Hollywood film. The main character ends up dying in the end, which is rare in the Hollywood system. The main story line isn’t apparent. We know that Michel is trying to search for his money and we know that he wants to spend the rest of his life with Patricia and move with her to Rome but rarely do the two interweave within the film. It’s almost like they are two separate yet closely related storylines: definitely not parallel. However, that may be the point; that the movie isn’t really about either story. The film seems to be about the relationship between Michel and Patricia. Even whenever the two are apart (other than when Michel is in search for his money and the scene in which Patricia is kissing her co-worker in the car), they are contemplating their relationship with one another. Half the film is simply dialogue between the two of them with no real action. The story essentially ends when Michel gives up all hope for himself when Patricia rats him out to the police and gets shot with Patricia looking down on his fallen body thinking to what extent is this her doing.

À bout de souffle was either going to a great film or an awful film when it was going to be released. Because of the radical directing techniques employed by Godard, there was not going to be a middle ground for this. Either the general population was going to reject his experimental techniques because they were too weird or bizarre or they were going to embrace it because it was different and unique. The way this film was made, it seemed more of an anecdote of a friend rather than a story about two anonymous people that no one will ever meet. All the factors that Godard employed helped make this a tale that stands out from the rest.

Please note that this is a review that I had to write for a college course. It was originally written in 2002 and published December 29, 2008 on this site. For this upload, I have added some movie stills and made some grammatical changes.

It may seem to nitpick too much on the technical issues with the film. The film is excellent though and I always seem to be drawn towards this essay after I watch a couple of crappy Hollywood sequels. Enjoy the review and then go watch the film!

Rating: 5 out of 5.
Jamie Gore

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