À bout de souffle (Jean-Luc Godard, 1959)
One day I've read somewhere that everything has been written, but not by me. Well, this review or essay will try to do what Godard did himself with À bout de souffle; everything has been done but not by him.
I have to admit that the first time I watched À bout de souffle I hated it to its deep core. I called JLG a dilettant and a boring pretentious wannabe filmmaker. You what? I think Godard intentionally made a film that could provoque this kind of reaction. He likes to provoke the spectator to make him think. Well it worked because many years after, the film stuck in my mind and different parts of it were recurent memries. After watching it again lately I had the urge to write down, or type down if you prefer, some thoughts about it.
Something new, no something different!
At the first viewing of À bout de souffle I must admit that I didn't knew very much who was Humphrey Bogart, Jean-Paul Belmondo or even Jean-Luc Godard himself. I am currently reading Antoine De Baecque's biography on Godard, that I deeply recommend by the way. The more I know about Godard the more I understand and appreciate his films.
The story of À bout de souffle is simple and very Hollywood film noir oriented: a young man Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) steals a car and on the run on a provincial route to Paris he kills a policeman. He goes to Paris and tries to get paid for some earlier car thief and most importantly he wants to find Patricia (Jean Seberg) an American girl he "likes". Michel plays a tough guy "à la Humphrey Bogart" and even his twitch is inspired by Bogart's character in The Big Sleep; Bogart constantly rubs his ear.
From the first scene and even the first words pronounced in À bout de souffle we actually know that Poiccard is doomed: Je suis con! Ah ce que je suis con! "I'm dumb! Ah! I'm so dumb!". Just before he steals a car. Then he goes on the run and kills a cop. In these first scenes all the genius and creativity of Godard is demonstrated: the jump-cut and the narrative. The editing of the scene on the road is done with such slight angles between the takes that the viewer is destabilized. It's unnatural and if you asked a technician of the time he would say the scene just can't work. Well, it works very well! Without mentionning it or giving any indications on it the scenes are cut like a comic book. They seem to be shot in continuity but the eye knows that it is not the case. Same thing happens when Michel shots the policeman we see the gun for a second, we hear the gunshot and after we see the policeman falling near a tree. But we don't actually see Michel shooting the gun and the bullet entering the body. Why? Well Godard took for granted that any spectactor has seen this scene a thousand times shot the same classic way. Well, at first it may seem that Godard didn't knew how to shot a like that but it's the complet opposite he exactly knew how anyone would have shot that scene so he does something completly different.
If Antoine Doinel was François Truffaut, is Michel Poiccard Jean-Luc Godard?
There have been three biographies written on Jean-Luc Godard, a man that always tried to be mysterious and provocate with his films and declarations. I don't think that at nearly 80 years old he will ever write an autobiography, because there are so much in his films about himself that it is our job to take all the elements and put them together to try to understand the man, his oeuvre, and life itself.
Michel Poiccard represents the teenage years of JLG, like his character he used to steal, lie and sleep with many girls. Godard was in his teenage years a soft delinquent from a wealthy family on his mother side; the Monods. Like Poiccard, he tried to be against the current by stealing in order to get a little for each day. The long scene in Patricia's apartment represents the juvenile preoccupations; getting up at 12PM, sleeping and fooling around without any real ambition in life. Like Quentin Tarantino does in his films, Jean-Luc Godard gives lines to his characters that explains his preoccupations and his ideas. The interview scene when Patricia asks: "Quelle est votre ambition dans la vie?" for the second time and the writer answers: "Être immortel et ensuite mourrir" we can interpret thoses lines as the lines of Godard himself: with this film I want to become immortal. In the way of being recognized forever in the memory of humanity instead of never die.
Deep Impact or Jean-Luc Godard is Cinema
As of today, 50 years after its release, À bout de souffle is recognized by initiates as a masterpiece. To others, its the symbol of the French New Wave, and for some it's just another boring french film.
It's appreciation is not the most important, it's its impact on filmmaking and its reflexion of Cinema itself. In À bout de souffle when can find many references from the many filmmakers Jean-Luc Godard admired, the three scenes where conversations are muted by noises, just like Alfred Hitchcock's films. The use of handheld cameras. The exteriors filmed on the Champs Élysés and the streets of Paris instead of the studios. The many improvised scenes like Roberto Rossellini's Neorealist films and we can go on for another 1000 words on the references. In France the impact was huge and after this approach or this way of filming inspired the generation of the second golden Age of Hollywood Cinema the 1970's: Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, Terrence Malick, etc.
À bout de souffle carried every ingredient that Godard praised in 1950's Hollywood Cinema and reinterpreted its recipe to serve it back. Sometimes an external point of view gives you the push you needed to push yourself to a level you wouldn't expect yourself to able to attain.
If you don't like Godard, you don't like Cinema! to cite someone I don't remember whom but I think it was so right.
This is an uncommon lenght for a review here but I think great films inspire dense reviews. À bout de souffle is a passionate film from a passionate filmmaker.