Out of Breath
Since it first appeared, Breathless—A bout de souffle, 1959—has become an historical landmark. Never was there a work less suited to this monumental fate. As Godard remarked in 1962, he was just goofing around when he made the film—which was, after all, his first full-length project. Goofing around allowed him to see what he could do and what he couldn't. "I like A bout de souffle very much, but now I see where it belongs—along with Alice in Wonderland. I thought it was Scarface" (Cahiers du cinema, February 1962). To put the point another way, Godard began with the intention of reinvigorating the genre of the gangster movie but ended by dwelling on the paradoxes and perils implicit in acts of imitation. What began as a homage to Hollywood melodrama ended as a kind of polemical and critical fantasia.
Godard's crossed intentions are manifest in the way he treats that obligatory sequence, the Death of the Gangster. Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) has come to the end of his rope. Having murdered a traffic cop, he finds himself sought rather urgently all over Paris. His girlfriend—nice, middle-class, American Patricia (Jean Seberg)—gives the police his address, then informs him that she has done so. Michel does not appreciate her thoughtfulness. Each of the lovers engages in a lengthy, self-justifying monologue: appropriately, the camera tracks them in circles.
Following this curious interlude, Michel runs out into the street just as a friend drives by with the cash he has been awaiting. Evidently discouraged—impossible that Patricia should have squealed—Michel refuses to take either a ride or a gun from his friend. Now the cops arrive—from which direction is a little bit unclear, since the spatial coordinates of the sequence are starting to become obscure. The friend in the car throws the gun towards Michel, who picks it up. His pursuers fire after him, evidently wounding him in the chest. (Did the bullet go all the way through him?) Michel runs, and runs . . . and runs . . . and runs. Passersby don't pay much attention as he staggers down the street in what becomes a ludicrous Dance of Death. It's just an average day in Paris, with another gangster dying a movie death.
At last Michel reaches the intersection, where he falls, mutters some ambiguous words of abuse, and closes his own eyelids. Patricia and the cops look down at the corpse. "What did he say?" she asks. "He said you're a little bitch," comes the reply. She is appalled, sort of. "I don't understand": then she rubs her lower lip with her thumbnail, a gesture acquired from Michel, who got it in his turn from watching old Humphrey Bogart films. Patricia turns her back to the camera. Breathless is over.
Imitation begins as an act of homage. Michel—to take the outstanding example within the film—imitates Bogart because Bogart is the sort of hero he would like to be. As Godard makes clear, however, Michel is a stupid, selfish, petty criminal who will sooner or later find a way to destroy himself. He is cute, but not quite cute enough to make up for his obvious drawbacks. (One suspects that no degree of cuteness could make up for them.)
Michel's attempt to imitate Bogart is therefore unavailing. He bears no resemblance to the stubborn outsider full of aggressive integrity, violent but living according to an admirable code. He's just a small-time loser who has seen too many movies and whose identity has been drained by his exposure to media-fantasy. James Monaco (The New Wave) remarks that we don't really see Michel pursued by the police—not until that absurd sequence at the end. What we do get to watch throughout the film are scenes of Michel reading in the newspapers about his supposed pursuit. Even to himself, Michel is an illusion created by (1) his Bogart imitation; (2) the imitation of that imitation in the newspaper reports; (3) Godard's own account of these (and many other) echoes or repetitions.
Of course, the other characters in Breathless are also subject to this leaking-out of reality. Patricia's disappearing act at film's end corresponds to Michel's. She in her way, as he in his, has been drained of substance. Well might he close his own lids (a fiction destroying itself); well might she rub her lip and turn her back.
Viewed in this context, Godard's move from homage to criticism becomes quite understandable. Godard shares several traits with his hero. He's another Parisian punk who likes old movies, whose life might be said to consist of film and its lore. All the same, the director is not out to prove his own nonexistence, as he wants to prove Michel's. Godard is searching for a form of imitation that will reveal the modern world instead of becoming enslaved to it.
When he moves beyond excess— beyond, let us say, the desire to outdo everyone else's Dying Gangster—when he embraces parody and thus comes to recognize discrepancies or meaningless repetitions, he is on the verge of discovering a usable method. Adapting imitation to his own purposes, Godard defines an approach to modern life. Later this approach will allow him to study certain manifestations of modernity—advertising, traffic jams, prostitution, car washes—with greater acuity than anyone before or since.
None of my comments thus far will surprise people who have studied Godard's career. On the other hand, many of his early fans fell in love with Breathless for reasons that were, even then, beside the point. Among these fans were two Americans, L. M. Kit Carson and Jim McBride, who decided sometime around 1978 to remake their favorite French New Wave movie. Carson later wrote, "Godard and A Bout de Souffle had been a root movie experience for both of us—there was all the other movies we'd seen, and then there was Godard."
Carson's confession is from his diary on the making of Breathless II (Film Comment, May 1983), which also includes some funny anecdotes about executives misunderstanding the original version. At Paramount, Marty Erlichmann sleeps through "the big love scene" in Godard's Breathless and then declares, "Ya know what I like? The basicness of the sensuosity." But funniest of all is Carson's own misunderstanding:
[After their own screening] we shake our heads. McBride: "It's got everything: sex, violence, philosophy, the works." I add: "It's got love, too."
Our job is to wrestle with this and try to make it come out new and real. Try.
This passage (written, Carson tells us in '78, just before five years of wandering in the wilderness) suggests that real disaster is on the way. Here are Carson and McBride trying to recapture their youth— trying to recapture what Carson aptly terms the Mantle of Hipness. What a movie to do it with! The whole point of Breathless is that it looks like an exercise in romanticism, existentialism, or whatever your favorite youthful indiscretion may be—and that looks can be deceiving. By the time Belmondo keels over we should know better. Carson and McBride have never figured that out. Boys will be boys, especially when they're not boys anymore.
The American Breathless was released, finally, in 1983. However self-serving Carson's diary may be, I end up admiring his effort and McBride's—somewhat in the way I admire Don Quixote's. The movie itself is another story. Though it got some appreciative reviews—the best one from Stanley Kauffmann of all people (The New Republic, 13 June 1983)—it is in every way an unworthy successor. Godard's blundering imitation of American cinema helped him find an approach to modern life. The imitation attempted by Carson and McBride is interesting only as a symptom of modern life: most particularly of American culture after the 1960s.
In the role of Michel (here Jesse Lujack), Richard Gere has replaced Jean-Paul Belmondo. Gere's biggest box-office success has been An Officer and a Gentleman—a film still fresh for most Americans when Breathless at long last appeared. Friends have told me of Gere-struck women running in nausea from the theater. The reason is clear. McBride and Carson have tried to have it both ways: to present Gere as a Las Vegas party boy-punk, the appropriate 1980s version of Godard's Michel; and to present him as a potential family man (cf. An Officer or other popular films starring Gere).
This compromise is not pretty. At a crucial moment in Godard's Breathless, Patricia informs Michel that she is pregnant and he snaps out, "Why weren't you more careful?" At the equivalent moment in Breathless II, Jesse pauses, surprised—wondering, perhaps, about his sophisticated girlfriend's ignorance of modern birth control technologies—then relaxes, beatific: "We're going to have a little muchacho." A little muchacho? A little muchacho?
Later the muchacho line comes back. Carson and McBride don't want us to miss it, as if there were any likelihood of our doing so. Perhaps Gere demanded this sentimentalization—but I doubt it: the problem with Jesse Lujack's character parallels the problem with Breathless, II as a whole. Godard conceived a figure who had been emptied of content because he assented fully and uncritically to the spectacle of modern life. McBride and Carson have conceived a figure more real than anyone else in the modern world because he is natural, feeling, unthinking, spontaneous, and moreover likes Jerry Lee Lewis.
Jesse's authenticity is argued in many ways. Unlike Michel, he is sorry that he killed a cop. Unlike Michel, he does not just read about his pursuit: he lives it, especially during an exciting chase in what seems to be a Tijuana warehouse. He lives sex too. When Michel and Patricia wrestle on the bed in her little Parisian apartment, Godard treats the event wryly, with a shrug. Gere's relation to beautiful Valeric Kaprisky is something else again. During his big sex scene with her, solemn, almost liturgical music plays. Sex is a sacrament which redeems its most beautiful and adept celebrants (one suspects that fumblers are damned).
However, it is in the Death of the Gangster that the conception of Breathless II is most fully acknowledged. The discrepancies that mark Godard's sequence are gone. Jesse moves within a space whose contradictions, if they exist, are concealed. And what of the long, staggering run? The Film Comment publication of Carson's diary includes a photograph of Jesse lying on the pavement of a street, with the moviemakers crouched around him. What we seem to have here is the filming of the gangster's death, immediately after his run down the street.
As released, however, Breathless II does not include this scene. The cops dare Jesse to pick up the gun which his fleeing henchman has thrown to him. He starts to do a little rock-and-roll dance, addressed to his appalled girlfriend: a dance, yes, of love. Then, abruptly, he reaches down for the gun, points it at one of the cops, and the frame freezes. Our hero is left forever at his moment of glory. The Mantle of Hipness slowly descends, not so much upon the form of Jesse Lujack as upon his adoring creators.
It is understandable that Carson and McBride loved a memory of Breathless rather than Breathless itself. The film is not, when one studies it, an appropriate object of glowing nostalgia. Its vision of the world is made tolerable through improvised playfulness and wit, qualities which the Hollywood Breathless makes no attempt to duplicate. Perhaps Godard's analytical impulses simply do not speak to Americans or American culture. This would explain why we seem to have inherited the worst of the Sixties—the bias towards self-indulgence as a way of life, whether by "hippies," "yuppies," or romanticized members of the lumpen-proletariat—without keeping any of the useful parts: e.g., the ability to consider social institutions analytically, the capacity not to take them for granted.
A depressing speculation (for me, at least), but it leads to a question more depressing yet: is it possible, in our culture, for significant numbers of people to be happy and not stupid? I would like to believe that this combination is attainable on a mass scale. Nothing in Breathless II and little elsewhere encourages me to suppose that it is. The only way we can tolerate Jesse Lujack is by liking him—and the only way we can like him is by denying the disturbing implications of his character. Therefor Carson and McBride—the matter ends. There—for the rest of us—the problem begins.