I was 19 when I first saw À bout de souffle (1960).
I would say it was the right age, but in truth, any age is the right age.
By this point, I was a burgeoning cinema nerd, and my film diet largely consisted of 90s/00s auteurs (Fincher, Aronofsky, PTA, Tarantino, Nolan, etc.) and New Hollywood (Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, Polanski). Nothing overtly challenging, of course. I was 19.
But after a while, I hit a wall. There are only so many movies associated with a particular movement, and I’d come pretty close to seeing most of them – or at least the ‘prestigious’ ones. Where else could I head to next? I figured the easiest way was to read the interviews by the guys (1) I admired and see who they cited as influences. One name kept cropping up.
Jean-Luc Godard. Even his fucking name was cool. Ok, so this was the guy to the guys I worshipped. I would start with him. And as a wise woman once said, I would start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.
You know how after a while, all innovative works of art become staid and boring for future generations? This is true especially for the most groundbreaking and influential works, because what they pioneer gets replicated and copied ad nauseum to the extent that it becomes difficult for contemporary eyes to see exactly what was so special about the work in the first place. Think Citizen Kane, Seinfeld, or Super Mario 64. Sure grandpa, that may have been special back then, but now, it just looks like a relic.
À bout de souffle does not have that problem. It could have been made yesterday. Godard was 30 when he made it, fresh from a stint at the legendary critical magazine Cahiers du Cinéma where he (along with other luminaries like François Truffaut and Éric Rohmer) excoriated the existing canon of ‘prestige’ films for being staid, pretentious, and unimaginative. Instead, Godard championed films that pushed the boundaries of good taste and formal technique (2), and along with his colleagues at Cahiers, developed what was known as politique des auteurs – the policy of emphasising the director as the key author (or auteur, if we are being sniffy) of a film. If it sounds familiar to you, that’s because it now forms the bedrock of most mainstream film criticism.
But criticism was not enough for Godard. No, if one really wants to show beyond any shadow of a doubt what cinema could do when not constrained by bourgeois respectability, one has to make a film. And what a film he made. Some films plod. Some films soar. À bout de souffle sizzles. It crackles and pops to its own discordant beat. It is shot in a way we might now call guerilla-style, with Godard and his (legendary) cinematographer Raoul Coutard shooting on the street with cheap hand-held cameras. No fancy equipment, no fake sets, no permits. Almost everything was improvised, with minimal rehearsals and pages of dialogue handed to the actors right before shooting.
The plot is gossamer-thin. A wannabe gangster (Jean-Michel Belmondo) kills a cop and steals a car. On the run, he talks a former American girlfriend (Jean Seberg) to take him in. In between, they talk. And talk. And talk. She betrays him and calls the police. He is shot. He dies, calling the world (or her – it’s never made clear) disgusting. She asks, beautiful, beatific, looking almost right at camera, what that word means. Fin.
This is the film that inspires an entire movement (the nouvelle vague, or French New Wave) that in turn inspires almost every cinematic movement for decades to come. There are obvious innovations – the jump cuts, the use of handheld cameras to signify realism, the mix of high and low art – and there are subtler ones like Jean-Michel Belmondo almost entirely reinventing the cinematic antihero, creating the ‘young people behaving badly but it’s philosophical’ film genre, and how Godard understood that editing could be much more fast-paced (some might say … breathless?) for a younger generation who had grown up with cinema always being part of their lives.
I didn’t ‘get’ everything immediately. After all, I was 19. But I got enough.
I am far removed from being 19. In the interim I have seen many films – some great, some terrible, most somewhere in between. But still nothing hits as hard as the best of Godard – Anna Karina crying in Vivre Sa Vie while watching The Passion of Joan of Arc, the endless traffic jam that starts Week-End, the dance scene in Bande à part, the running through the Louvre scene in Bande à part, the one minute silence in Bande à part (look, just all of Bande à part, ok?), the bathroom scene in Contempt, and of course, Seberg and Belmondo just walking and talking on the streets of Paris. These scenes and these movies opened up my world from two paths to an entire horizon. They showed me what film could be.
I watched a lot more of Godard in the years to come. À bout de souffle is not even in my Top 5 (3). I’ve seen very little of his explicitly political, post-1968 work, but honestly, it hardly matters. Godard to me is like The Beatles, where everything he did in the span of eight years trumps almost everyone else’s decades-long filmographies. He made science fiction, musicals, romantic comedies, and whatever the fuck Made in U.S.A is. He pioneered and popularised so many techniques that it would be impossible to list them all.
But above all, he created modern cinema. He was (and is) the guy to your guy (or gal, or non-binary filmmaker of choice). He freed cinema from its shackles and did more than anybody else to show what it could achieve. On shoestring budgets, he created an entire filmmaking vocabulary that everyone uses to this day. And at the peak of his powers, he stepped off the pedestal to continue pushing the artform in whatever direction he felt like heading in. He was a rebel, a trailblazer, and an iconoclast to the very end.
Jean-Luc Godard is dead. But as long as there is cinema – truth at twenty-four frames per second – his legacy lives on.