“To make a film all you need is a girl and a gun.” Jean-Luc Godard’s oft-quoted line might have come from the mouth of any tough-talking, American movie director from Hollywood’s classic era. The fact that it was spoken by a 29-year-old Franco-Swiss intellectual from Paris says much about the cross-cultural pollination that was so crucial to birth of the New Wave and to what is often considered its flagship film: À bout de souffle. Indeed the film’s simple story resembles a classic American film noir, such as those made by Monogram Studios, to whom the film is dedicated. But Godard approached the story in ways that departed radically from past genre archetypes. His years as a critic, his immersion in both high and low culture, his philosophical explorations, all impacted on his debut feature film. As he said in an interview, the film was the result of “a decade’s worth of making movies in my head.” The fact that he was relatively inexperienced and had little knowledge of the practical aspects of filmmaking proved unimportant. What he did have were an accumulation of original ideas, which he applied fearlessly to the aesthetic and technical elements of the film. The results were nothing less than a cinematic revolution.
It was Francois Truffaut who, several years earlier, first sketched out the outline for what would become À bout de souffle. He had been inspired by a true story that had fascinated tabloid France in 1952, when a man named Michel Portail, a petty criminal who had stolen a car, shot a motorcycle policeman who pulled him over, and then hid out for almost two weeks until he was found in a canoe docked in the centre of Paris. One aspect of the story that had appealed to Truffaut was the fact that Portail had an American journalist girlfriend who he had tried to convince to run away with him. Instead she turned him into the police. Truffaut had collaborated with both Claude Chabrol and Godard on the story but had failed to interest any producers. By 1959, Godard, now desperate to catch up with his Cahiers colleagues and make a first feature film, asked if he might revive the project. Truffaut, buoyant with success after the ecstatic reception of Les Quatre cents coups at Cannes, not only agreed, but also helped to convince Georges de Beauregard to produce the film.
With a low budget of 510,000 francs (a third of the average cost of a French film at that time), Godard set about casting for the film. He suggested to Beauregard that they hire Jean Seberg, the young actress who had made an uncertain start in pictures on Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan and Bonjour Tristesse, as the American woman. Although most critics had disparaged both films, Godard had written admiringly about Seberg in the pages of Cahiers du cinema. Unimpressed by the director at their first meeting, describing him as “an incredibly introverted, messy-looking young man with glasses, who didn’t look her in the eye when she talked,” she was, nevertheless, encouraged by her husband, a French attorney with directing ambitions of his own, to accept the role. Persuading Columbia Studios to lend her out for the film was less easy, but again her husband stepped in and managed to convince the studio to accept a small cash payment for her participation. As for Jean-Paul Belmondo, Godard had already promised him the lead role in his first film. Belmondo, who was beginning to get lucrative offers from the mainstream film industry, ignored the warning words of his agent who told him, “you’re making the biggest mistake of your life,” and accepted the part.
With his cast in place, Godard set about knocking Truffaut’s story outline into a screenplay. His original plan had been to use the outline as it was and merely add dialogue to it. Instead he rewrote the entire story, shifting the emphasis away from Truffaut’s portrayal of an anguished young man who turns to crime out of despair, to that of a young hoodlum with an existential indifference to common morality and the rule of law. Crucially, in the new version, the American woman Patricia comes into the narrative near the beginning and their love story dominates the film.
Filming took place over the summer of 1959. Behind the camera was Raoul Coutard, originally a documentary cameraman for the French army’s information service in Indochina during the war. Coutard’s background suited Godard who wanted the film to be shot, as much as possible, like a documentary, with a handheld camera and the minimum of lighting. This decision was taken for both aesthetic reasons – making the film look like a newsreel – and practical reasons – saving the time setting up lights and tripod. Flexibility was very important to Godard, who wanted the freedom to improvise and shoot whenever and wherever he wanted without too many technical constraints. He and Coutard devised ways – such as using a wheelchair for tracking shots and shooting with specialist lowlight filmstock for nighttime scenes – to make this possible.
Godard’s method of directing A bout de souffle was even more radical than his technical innovations. Much to the producer Beauregard’s disapproval, he often only filmed for a couple of hours a day. Sometimes, when lacking the necessary inspiration, he would cancel the day’s filming altogether. Early on in the shoot, he discarded the screenplay he had written and decided to write the dialogue day by day as the production went along. The actors found this procedure strange and sometimes forgot their lines, however, since the soundtrack was to be post-synchronized later, when the actor’s were lost for words, Godard would call out their lines to them from behind the camera. For Godard the act of making a film was as much a part of its meaning as its content and style. Like “action painting” he felt a film reflected the conditions under which it was made, and that a director’s technique was the method by which a film could be made personal.
Godard’s unorthodox methods continued in the editing suite. His first cut of À bout de souffle was two-and-a-half hours long but Beauregard had required he deliver a ninety-minute film. Rather than cutting out whole scenes, he decided to cut within scenes, even within shots. This use of deliberate jump cuts was unheard of in professional filmmaking where edits were designed to be as seamless as possible. He also cut between shots from intentionally disorienting angles that broke all the traditional rules of continuity. By deliberately appearing amateurish Godard drew attention to the conventions of classic cinema, revealing them for what they were, merely conventions.
It wasn’t only in the montage of images that Godard expressed his personality, but also through the rich depth of references to cinema, literature, and art. À bout de souffle abounds with quotations of movies by directors such as Samuel Fuller, Joseph H. Lewis, Otto Preminger and any number of classic film noirs. There are also quotations and references to writers such as Faulkner, Dylan Thomas, and Louis Aragon, as well as painters like Picasso, Renoir and Klee. Reflecting the film’s cultural heritage, American iconography and influence is everywhere: in the cars (Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles), Michel’s obsession with Humphrey Bogart, and the jaunty, improvised jazz score (played by French pianist Martial Solal). Godard also included his friends in the film. He asked Jean-Pierre Melville to play the celebrated novelist who Patricia interviews at Orly Airport (the other journalists were all played by friends such as André S. Labarthe and Jean Douchet), and Jacques Rivette had a cameo role as a man run over in the street. Godard himself played the informer who recognizes Michel in the street and turns him in.
On a deeper level, Godard used the film’s framework to explore some of the themes which preoccupied him, and which he would continue to explore for years to come. Some of the key ideas of existentialism, such as stressing the individual’s importance over society’s rules and the evident absurdity of life, lie at the core of the narrative. Death is an everyday event and generally treated with indifference. The impossibility of love, another central Godardian theme, is played out in the relationship between Michel and Patricia. In the long hotel room scene, which takes up nearly a third of the screen time, the two lovers talk, joke, argue and fool about, but frequently fail to completely understand each other. Michel’s use of slang is often lost on Patricia. That she fails to even understand his dying words sums up the flawed nature of their relationship.
Although Godard was the last of his Cahiers du cinema colleagues to make a film – Truffaut, Chabrol, Rohmer and Rivette had all completed or at least shot their debuts before À bout de souffle went into production – it was A bout de souffle that became the cornerstone of the New Wave, and is still the film that defines the movement in the public mind. Sight and Sound magazine called it “the group’s intellectual manifesto” and it, more than any other film of the time, captured the New Wave revolt against traditional cinematic form. It also had a youthful exuberance and a pair of leading actors whose style and attitude seemed to epitomize a new generation of youth. In one fell swoop, Godard had succeeded in making the movement representative of the times, defined cinema as the artform of the moment, and personally become one of its most important figures.
A bout de souffle was an immediate success. In January 1960, just before the film’s release it won the annual Jean Vigo Prize, given to films made with an independent spirit. The critics were unanimous in their praise, recognizing the film as the greatest accomplishment yet to come out of the New Wave. One wrote: “The terms ‘old cinema’ and ‘new cinema’ now have meaning… with À bout de souffle, the generation gap can suddenly be felt.” Celebrated British critic Penelope Gilliat commented that: “Jean-Luc Godard makes a film as though no one had ever made one before.” When it opened in four commercial cinemas in Paris, it immediately drew large crowds. In the end its profits were estimated to be fifty times the original investment. More importantly, it inspired a generation of filmmakers – for whom Godard had become the embodiment of the New Wave and the archetypal cinematic intellectual – to emulate what he had done. Now, 50 years after its release, the film’s impact and its popularity with critics and the public has not diminished. It continues to influence both directors and the wider culture, and every few years a new generation discovers and falls in love with its unique charm all over again.