At the Movies

Michael Wood

We are supposed to remember the jump cuts, the hand-held camera, the fast editing, and the airy sense that in the right kind of film nothing can get a bad man down. Everything is accident and freedom, until the last accident, which is death. Our man casually kills a policeman because he can; because there is a gun in the car he has stolen; because he wants to be a gangster; and because he is in a French-American B-movie. Then he is supposed to be on the run, but his idea of running is walking around Paris reading a newspaper, making lots of phone calls and pestering an American girl who works at the Herald Tribune and wants to be a writer.

And we do remember all this, or most of it, as we watch Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless in the fine new print released for the work’s 50th birthday. The film helps us out, because it is almost entirely faithful to our memories, it has scarcely changed. It’s true it doesn’t feel quite as young as it did, and that a certain melancholy, always present, murmurs a little more loudly than it used to. Fifty years are not nothing. But think of some of the other films released in 1960: L’Avventura, Butterfield 8, La Dolce Vita, Elmer Gantry, The Entertainer, The Magnificent Seven, Never on Sunday, Ocean’s Eleven, Peeping Tom, Psycho, Sergeant Rutledge, Sons and Lovers, Spartacus, Testament of Orpheus, Tunes of Glory, The Virgin Spring. There are some great films in this list, but most of them show their age far more than Breathless does.

Of course we may have forgotten a few details. Like the moment when Jean Seberg admiringly reads to Jean-Paul Belmondo a line from Faulkner’s Wild Palms: ‘Between grief and nothing, I will take grief.’ He replies: ‘Grief is stupid. I choose nothing.’ Or the moment that you won’t have forgotten but I had, when a young woman accosts Belmondo on the Champs-Elysées and tries to sell him a copy of Cahiers du Cinema. ‘Monsieur’, she says, ‘you don’t have anything against the young?’ ‘Sure I do,’ he says, ‘I prefer old folks.’ This is an intricate joke. He can’t quite be speaking for the film because this is the New Wave; but the New Wave had its own allegiance to the old – to cheap old American movies rather than expensive new French ones, the so-called ‘tradition of quality’. Breathless is dedicated to Monogram Pictures, producers of the Charlie Chan series, the Mr Wong series, and countless westerns.

There is the great, delicate jazz score by Martial Solal, which I can’t have forgotten because I was humming along as soon as the piano started up, but which was not part of my immediate conscious memory of the movie. This was still pioneering work in the use of jazz in film: Louis Malle’s Lift to the Scaffold, with its impeccable Miles Davis track, was only two years old.

And our memories may not have followed very closely the life of the word dégueulasse in the film. A young woman uses it of Belmondo early in the film, and she means something like rotten and crooked as well as disgusting – in context a mild complaint but something he would take as a compliment, a sign that he was living up to his sense of his properly disreputable self. At the end of the film, as Belmondo lies dying on the street – the law has caught up with him, Seberg has given him away – he says: ‘C’est vraiment dégueulasse.’ He means disgusting in the sense of shitty, a raw deal, a mess, but what is he referring to? Dying like this, Seberg’s betrayal, his continuing to love her in spite of her betrayal, or something larger like the existential ennui we have seen creeping up on him? Just before he gets shot he has a conversation with a friend, or ostensibly with a friend. Actually he addresses the camera and tells us directly and meaningfully that he has had enough – of everything, that is. The policeman thinks he knows what the dying man means by ‘dégueulasse’, and when Seberg asks what he said, the policeman, off-screen, since the camera is still on her face, replies, ‘He said you were dégueulasse.’ She scarcely reacts, and then asks, in the mode she has been using throughout the movie to improve her French, ‘Qu’est-ce que c’est, dégueulasse?’ The film ends on her question and her face.

But this is complex, painful irony rather than melancholy, and we still need to ask what makes the melancholy sound louder than it used to. It’s not Seberg’s performance, although she does seem curiously abstracted, self-absorbed, as if she had wandered in not from America but from another kind of movie and hadn’t quite recognised the new country. Of course she had wandered in from another kind of movie: two other kinds of movie, Saint Joan and Bonjour Tristesse. But this is all part of the effect Godard wants, the childlike look, the alien, the elf, the sphinx. It’s mysterious but it isn’t sad. No, the sadness comes from what perhaps once felt like style or dash, Belmondo’s pathetic attempts to cut a figure. The white socks, the thick tweed jackets with the wide shoulders, the assertive Windsor knot in the tie, the tilted hats, the permanent, drooping, half-smoked cigarette, the carefully rehearsed gestures like the running of the thumb across the mouth, the enthralled, dreaming relationship to a poster of Humphrey Bogart: all this effort, this determined Wildean creation of the self as a work of art, and for what? So that you can look and behave not like a tough guy or even a thug but like a loser, the man who read the wrong manual. This is part of the film’s charm and complexity, of course, and the white socks were always there. But the fantasy seems more and more of a fantasy. It’s not that Belmondo is a small-time crook. He’s a no-time crook, even if he has killed a cop. He too, like Seberg, is in the wrong movie, the violent romantic comedy that he thought was going to be a thriller – or, if you like, in a reflective Godard movie rather than a darker or more dramatic one by Nicholas Ray or Michael Curtiz, or Mark Robson (the director of The Harder They Fall, the poster for which appears in Breathless and entrances Belmondo). Godard himself said he used to think of the film as being in the line of Scarface, but had come to see that it really belonged with Alice in Wonderland.

There is a moment, though, when Belmondo gets into the right film. It’s highly stylised and knowing, and a long way from the artlessness of any B-movie. But it is a moment where he finds and fits his role. When he is shot on the street, having refused to defend himself even though a friend has thrown him a gun, he turns and runs, makes a long, loping, staggering exit down a narrow street. His arm flaps, a bloodstain spreads up his back but he’s still running rather than walking, and he’s dying like a man in a movie. The soundtrack turns up the full orchestra, plenty of trumpets, and he heads towards a busy intersection. We know as surely as we know anything that he will not fall before he reaches the intersection; and that he will not stumble into the intersection and get run over. He will die at the precise edge of the intersection, his life will end at the end of the street, as a scripted or choreographed life should, and it does. He drops spread-eagled into the perfect middle of a pedestrian crossing, as if aiming for a mark. When he says it’s ‘vraiment dégueulasse’ he may be making a last joke.