Godard’s Revolutionizes Film Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Jean-Luc Godard, the most innovative of the French New Wave directors, applied expressionistic concepts of modern art to filmmaking and changed the medium forever, beginning a career that would last for decades and see him become among the most influential directors of the twentieth century.

Summary of Event

Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle, released in English-speaking countries under the title Breathless in 1961 (it premiered in France on March 16, 1960), received widespread critical acclaim when it appeared. The story moves at a “breathless” pace from start to finish. The hero, Michel Poiccard, played by the homely but charismatic Jean-Paul Belmondo, is a small-time hoodlum who seems to specialize in stealing cars and fencing them to crooked dealers. “Seems” is an indispensable word to use in describing any Godard film, because this director has never gone to any great trouble to explain plot points to his audience. Breathless (Godard) French New Wave Cinema;stylistic innovation Modernism;cinema [kw]Godard’s Breathless Revolutionizes Film (Mar. 16, 1960)[Godards Breathless] [kw]Breathless Revolutionizes Film, Godard’s (Mar. 16, 1960) [kw]Film, Godard’s Breathless Revolutionizes (Mar. 16, 1960)[Film, Godards] Breathless (Godard) French New Wave Cinema;stylistic innovation Modernism;cinema [g]Europe;Mar. 16, 1960: Godard’s Breathless Revolutionizes Film[06430] [g]France;Mar. 16, 1960: Godard’s Breathless Revolutionizes Film[06430] [c]Motion pictures and video;Mar. 16, 1960: Godard’s Breathless Revolutionizes Film[06430] Godard, Jean-Luc Belmondo, Jean-Paul Seberg, Jean Chabrol, Claude Truffaut, François

Michel steals a flashy Oldsmobile convertible. His passion for American cars is symbolic of the onslaught of American materialism and consumer culture that Godard believed was destroying French culture. Instead of keeping a low profile, Michel passes every car on the road and soon attracts the attention of highway patrolmen. He kills one of the motorcycle officers with a pistol that he happens to find in the car. The murder is never seen onscreen. Instead, it is portrayed using “jump cuts,” Jump cuts in cinema Cinema;narrative techniques Cinema;editing in which key portions of an event are elided from a scene, or “jumped over.” The officer approaches the car. Michel finds the gun. The gun fires in close-up. Michel is seen running away. A viewer must confront these disparate images and “fill in the blanks,” constructing the narrative events that they suggest.

Godard’s subsequent career would be so long and so consistently innovative that no one cinematic technique could be said to be his signature device. However, in his early career, jump cuts were one of the first major devices for which he was known. In Breathless in particular, they acquired a thematic as well as a stylistic significance, suggesting the extent to which the film’s characters are out of control, hurtling toward and through the events of their lives without planning or even fully experiencing them. In another scene, Michel stubs his toe and then he is in bed with Patricia. The transition from one event to the other is elided.

Abandoning the stolen car, Michel flees on foot across the fields. He soon learns from the newspapers that the police have identified him and are hot on his trail. Oddly enough, Michel does not seem frightened. Godard shows him admiring a large photograph of Humphrey Bogart in front of a theater, and viewers understand that Michel is trying his best to emulate his tough, worldly American film hero. Like Bogart, Michel is constantly smoking cigarettes and letting them hang from the corner of his mouth as “Bogie” did in some of his most famous films, such as The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Big Sleep (1946).

Instead of going into hiding, Michel begins courting an American woman named Patricia Franchini, who is played by Jean Seberg. Patricia aspires to be a journalist but is making a living by doing a little modeling and selling copies of the European edition of the New York Herald Tribune out on the boulevards. She speaks French with a strong American accent; here again, Godard evidently emphasizes Michel’s fatal attraction to things American.

Michel has no car and no money, but this does not seem to bother him. In a restaurant toilet, he casually knocks a patron unconscious and robs him of his wallet in order to pay for his meal. Evidently, Godard’s antihero is completely devoid of a moral conscience; he is a true citizen of the godless modern world. He has acquired his values from watching American films, which emphasize materialism and are produced only for the purpose of making money.

Michel’s name and photograph begin appearing in Paris newspapers. He seems to enjoy his notoriety and does not react with appropriate concern to the fact that he is facing execution or a lifetime in prison. When Patricia finds out from the police that Michel is wanted for murder, this information only seems to whet her interest in him. Soon she is helping him elude the police and riding around with him in yet another stolen American car while he tries to raise money.

The relationship between these modern young lovers is almost the antithesis of that between such classic lovers as Romeo and Juliet. Michel and Patricia are incapable of communicating. Both are selfish individuals lost in their private fantasy worlds. When Patricia becomes either bored or disenchanted, she casually turns Michel in to the police, and he dies on a Paris street with a bullet in his back. With his dying breath, he calls her disgusting (dégueulasse). She fails, however, to understand what he means. Patricia seems to symbolize the attractiveness and shallowness of American culture, and Michel’s last words are a double entendre, expressing Godard’s and Truffaut’s love-hate attitude toward the United States.

In Breathless, Godard took the hackneyed gangster story that had been told repeatedly in American films and showed how it could be used for social commentary. The film naturally showed the impact that American art forms and American values were making on the rest of the world in the second half of the twentieth century. American art had generally been regarded by Europeans as a second-rate imitation of European art, but that was true only of the older art forms such as literature and painting. In the new art forms such as film, the Americans were the innovators, even though Europeans might object to the purely commercial spirit that was often so evident in Hollywood productions. Godard caught the spirit of American films while rejecting their capitalistic profit motive.

Breathless was highly successful at the box office and received enthusiastic reviews in Europe. When it was released in the United States, it excited great interest and controversy there as well. Roger Angell, writing in The New Yorker, stated that the film was “far and away the most brilliant, most intelligent, and most exciting movie I have encountered this season.” Pauline Kael called it “the most important New Wave film which has reached the United States.”

Significance

Many essays have been written about Godard’s technique, philosophy, and politics. Throughout his career, Godard has done with the film story what painters such as Pablo Picasso were doing with the subjects that they painted: Godard has been using the motion picture as a vehicle for expressing his own feelings. Often the story seems bizarre and confusing, just as a Picasso painting often seems grotesque to anyone who does not understand that the great Spanish artist’s purpose was to express his feelings and not to produce an accurate copy of reality.

This artistic expressionism had been the dominant trend in modern art throughout the twentieth century, but it was only with the French New Wave that filmmakers demonstrated how it could be applied to film. With Godard as leader, the New Wave movement introduced the concept of the director as auteur Auteur theory Cinema;auteurism (that is, author). The director was no longer a hired hand who faithfully rendered a script onto film but a creative artist who used the script as a vehicle for self-expression. This notion of self-expression is complicated, however, by the fact that Godard’s central interest is confronting the medium and technology of film itself to force viewers to understand a film as a set of representational signs, rather than pure, unmediated expression. Over the course of the 1960’s, moreover, this confrontation in Godard’s films became increasingly political, as he came to see the project of representation as inherently political rather than expressive. He would then retreat to a more classically modernist expressive conception of cinema in the late 1980’s.

In Breathless, Godard took the camera outside the studio. His films have always expressed a passion for the outdoors, and he understood that this freedom to move about in the world was one of the great advantages of motion pictures over stage dramas. While outside, Godard’s camera revels in the wealth of things to be seen in a fascinating city such as Paris or in the beautiful scenery of France.

It is typical of Godard to pay as much attention to the background as to the foreground of a shot, as much attention to the faces of passersby as to those of the characters in his story. For American viewers, watching a Godard film forces them to become award that the Hollywood conventions of storytelling do not constitute the only way to tell stories on film. This approach to filmmaking naturally places the viewer in a different position vis-à-vis the plot, which must be teased out of the images, rather than being their sole point. The viewer is made to feel like a voyeur who has somehow become interested in a certain set of people but who might lose them in the crowd at any moment. When a Godard character disappears to steal a car or make a telephone call, the viewer has no guarantee that character is ever coming back.

Often the viewer does not even know the characters’ names or anything about their past history. A New Wave director such as Godard does not bother to introduce his characters to the audience, any more than he would bother to introduce himself or his film crew. This approach is meant to reflect the alienation of modern life. While audiences may not understand such philosophical or political concepts, they do respond to the feelings conveyed by Godard’s films. They know what it is like to be surrounded by strangers, to go through days on end without ever seeing a familiar face, without understanding what is happening around them. They encounter strange events, such as car crashes or violent confrontations, and are never able to find out what happened or why.

In addition to American films, animated cartoons, and comic strips, another American innovation that captivated Godard was jazz. He frequently used this genre as background music in his films, but the improvisational spirit of jazz is obvious in his entire approach to filmmaking. The difference between a conventional dramatic film and one by Godard is like the difference between a conventional rendition of a popular tune and one played by saxophonist Charlie Parker.

The artistic influence of Godard and the New Wave movement has been so pervasive that there is hardly a director who does not subscribe to the auteur theory. Godard’s influence can be seen in the works of such virtuoso directors as Woody Allen, Robert Altman, John Cassavetes, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Roman Polanski, Tony Richardson, John Schlesinger, Andy Warhol, Lina Wertmüller, Wim Wenders, and many others.

Perhaps Godard’s most important influence has been in showing aspiring young filmmakers all over the world that they can produce significant works of art using simple equipment and taking advantage of natural settings. It has been argued that the most important advances in the art of cinema are made by young filmmakers using rented equipment, inexperienced crews, and unknown actors. Breathless (Godard) French New Wave Cinema;stylistic innovation Modernism;cinema

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Andrew, Dudley, ed. Breathless. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1987. A collection of materials relating to the production of Godard’s film, including an annotated continuity script, selections from critics’ reviews, commentaries, interviews, and a filmography. The editor’s intention was to suggest the aesthetic density involved in Godard’s film.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Angell, Roger. “All Homage.” The New Yorker, February 11, 1961, 102-104. This enthusiastic review of Breathless is an example of the reception accorded Godard’s film in the United States. Angell states that Godard had almost immediately become the most discussed and sought-after director in Europe.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cameron, Ian, ed. The Films of Jean-Luc Godard. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1969. A collection of essays about Godard and his films, written by sixteen authors representing many different countries. Contains many direct quotations in which Godard discusses his technique and philosophy. Copiously illustrated with black-and-white photographs. Contains a complete filmography up to 1968 and some valuable references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kael, Pauline. I Lost It at the Movies. Boston: Little, Brown, 1965. A collection of reviews and essays by this popular and highly influential American film critic. Her book contains a discussion of Breathless, along with reviews of films by François Truffaut and a penetrating examination of the auteur theory of filmmaking in an essay entitled “Circles and Squares.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lesage, Julia. Jean-Luc Godard: A Guide to References and Resources. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979. An outstanding reference source containing biographical information, criticism, detailed descriptions of Godard’s films, a film title index, an author index, a comprehensive bibliography, and a wealth of other information.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lloyd, Ann. The Illustrated History of the Cinema. New York: Macmillan, 1986. This 455-page book is beautifully illustrated with both black-and-white and color photographs. Covers the evolution of filmmaking on an international scale, devoting close attention to Godard and the New Wave movement in France. The index lists hundreds of films and individuals.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Monaco, James. The New Wave: Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976. Defines the New Wave, discusses the careers of the five most prominent French directors in the movement, and examines their works in detail. Amply illustrated with black-and-white photographs to highlight the distinctive characteristics of the New Wave genre. Excellent bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morrey, Douglas. Jean-Luc Godard. New York: Palgrave, 2005. Complete, comprehensive study of Godard’s life and work through the early twenty-first century, beginning with his years as a film critic for Cahiers du cinema and then devoting a chapter to each major period of the director’s extremely varied career. Bibliographic references, filmography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roud, Richard. Jean-Luc Godard. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1968. A detailed discussion of the films of Godard up to 1967 by an author regarded as an authority on his subject. Deals with Godard’s complex philosophical, political, artistic, and technical theories without overly complex language. Contains many black-and-white photographs from Godard’s films to illustrate the author’s points.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Temple, Michael, James S. Williams, and Michael Witt, eds. For Ever Godard. London: Black Dog, 2004. Compilation of essays by top film scholars—including Raymond Bellour and Colin MacCabe—examining Godard’s contributions to film theory and history. Bibliographic references and index.

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