Breathless (1960) as an exemplar of French New Wave Cinema

The film Breathless (1960) aka À bout de souffle (original French title), written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard based on a storyline prepared by Francois Truffaut, is one of the seminal films that launched  the French New Wave film movement. The origins of the French New Wave are to be found in the writings of a group of film critics writing for the publication Cahiers du Cenema in Paris in the 1950s. The Cahiers du Cinema had been established in 1950 by Jacques Doinol-Valcroz and Andre Bazin, and it quickly became one of the most influential publications in the history of cinema. Bazin, in particular, is often credited as being the first to establish film criticism as being intellectually on par with the kinds of reviews that were provided for the more established arts such as literature, theater, and music. He took on the role of mentor to a group of talented young film critics who wrote film reviews for his publication, most notably, Francis Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Rivet.  In 1954, Truffaut wrote an article in Cahiers du Cinema in the form of a manifesto calling for a new form of cinema. This article spawned the movement that came to be called, La Nouvelle Vague, typically translated as, The French New Wave.

The French New Wave arose within the social environment of Paris in the 1950s where these young film critics were working. Many of them formed or belonged to cini-clubs, much like our own Tacoma Film Club, in which films were screened and then discussed. A major focal point was the Cinematique Francaise, a film theater run by Henri Langlois. The atmosphere associated with this theater is captured nicely in an excellent documentary Henri Langlois: Phantom of the Cinematheque (2005). In those days before cable television, Blockbuster, and Netflix, most people did not have an opportunity to view a large number of films. Langois was an obsessive-compulsive collector who was always on the lookout for films from around the world. His screenings of newly acquired films would often be shown to standing-room only crowds, advertised by word of mouth among cineastes on the streets of Paris. Included in the audience would be the Young-Turk film critics writing articles for Cahiers du Cinema. Observers reported that film critics like Trauffout and Godard would often be seen sitting in the front row of these screenings, looking  as though they had not seen the light of day in weeks, having spent all of their time in dark movie theaters watching films.

Influences on the French New Wave

The New Wave film critics were influenced by many films, film traditions, and cultural influences from the 1950s. I will list 5 here briefly.

1) They were particularly impressed with the French films directed by John-Pierre Melville. Homage is given to Melville within the film Breathless in two ways. First, reference is made to a character named Bob Montaigne, who film buffs will recognize as being the main character in Melville’s classic film, Bob le Flambeur (1956). Second, Melville himself plays a bit part in Breathless as the character who speaks the line that “his ambition is to become immortal and then to die.” Here at the Tacoma Film Club, we previously discussed one of Melville’s later films, Le Samouri (1967), back in 2004.

2) These young critics also liked Hollywood film noir. Homoge is given to film noir star Humphrey Bogart in many scenes within Breathless where the main character, Michel, adopts film noir type poses, repeatedly mimics a Bogart gesture, wiping his lips with his finger, and spends several seconds in one scene gazing at a poster of Bogart and then blowing smoke at it.

3) They appreciated Italian Neorealism films, such as The Bicycle Thief (1948), which our film club rated and discussed in 2007. I posted a review of this film earlier here on our blogsite, The Bicycle Thief as an Exemplar of Italian Neorealism.

4) The New Wave was also heavily influenced by existential philosophy, especially as it was expressed in pop-culture in the 1950s by the beat generation. A major component of existentialism, the freedom to make choices based on free will, was a major thematic element of Breathless as I will elaborate further below.

5) Finally, one American film, The Little Fugitive (1953), was cited by Truffaut as being especially important in setting the stage for the New Wave Movement. The Little Fugitive was an independent film made in New York by Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin. Engel and Orkin had a professional background in 35 mm still photography. When they set out to make a “moving picture” film, they designed a lightweight 35 mm movie camera that could be hand held. They took this camera out into the streets of New York, and onto the beach at Coney Island, where they filmed actors speaking their dialogue in the midst of ordinary people who happened to be present at the scene. Truffaut considered this film to be the prototype of the kinds of films that could be made in the future as part of the New Wave.

Guiding Principles of the French New Wave

The theoretical underpinnings of the French New Wave philosophy are not easily systematized, but I will briefly summarize five of the most important guiding principles here:

1) The auteur theory of filmmaking was emphasized. It was argued that the person responsible for the overall artistic quality of a film should be the director, and as such the director should have complete control over all aspects of how a film is made. This approach was counter to the film studio system, pioneered in Hollywood, and mimicked in other countries around the world, including France. This auteur emphasis provided the model for the later emergence of “independent films”.

2) It was argued that the camera should be an important part of the film. The use of lightweight, hand-held cameras allowed the camera to move around with the actors in a scene. This allowed films to be made in which the viewer did not simply feel like a stationary member of an audience watching a play on a stage, but allowed the viewer to feel as though he or she was “in the scene”. Long tracking shots combined with new styles of editing such as jump cuts, allowed films to take on a dynamic feel, and to radiate hyperkinetic energy.

3) Films should be made in the real world in naturalistic settings rather than in an artificial studio. This allowed a merging of some aspects of what had traditionally been called documentary films with fictional narrative films that had traditionally been made in studios.

4) Films should be self-conscious and thought provoking. Traditional fictional films had tended to emphasize trying to create an experience in the viewer of “being lost in the story” such that they forgot they were even watching a film. The French New Wave thought that was a mistake. Films should create an experience in which the viewer is thinking about the film that is being watched. Techniques to achieve this goal included numerous allusions and references within a film to previous films, inside jokes that could be appreciated by film buffs, and an overall self-referential aspect such that the viewer was aware, simultaneously, of both the story being told in the film, and of the fact that they were watching a film that was telling the story.

5) Films should be about individuals who “break the rules”, and to show solidarity with this theoretical concept, film directors were encouraged to also “break the rules” when making a film. Film conventions about issues such as how long scenes should last, or about how a film should be edited, or about maintaining continuity, or maintaining plot consistency, should all be considered to be simply rules that are made to be broken.

New Wave Films

The New Wave philosophy of filmmaking was put into practice starting in the late 1950s and continuing into the mid 1960s. The film critics working at Cahiers du Cinema led the charge, becoming directors of films that they thought reflected these New Wave principles. Some critics list Le Beau Serge (1958), directed by Chabrol as the first New Wave Film. However, most consider the first truly New Wave film to be one that we originally discussed here at the Tacoma Film Club back in 2004, Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959). Our current selection, Breathless, directed by Godard in 1960 came next. Eventually, there were over 150 filmmakers who identified themselves as being part of the New Wave Film Movement, but most of their films have been relegated to obscurity. A few New Wave films that I would recommend include Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (1960), and Godard’s films Contempt (1963), Band of Outsiders (1964), and Hail Mary (1965). I would also recommend watching Six in Paris (1965) for a nice sampling of short films by new wave directors including Godard, Chabrol, and Rohmer. Many of the New Wave directors have continued making films long after the New Wave movement had run its course. Notable examples would include Truffaut’s Wild Child (1970), Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse (1991), Rohmer’s The Romance of Astria and Celadon (2007), Chabrol’s A Girl Cut in Two (2007), and continuing up to the present with Godard’s Socialism (2010).

Major Thematic Element in Breathless

I will only comment on one thematic element in the film Breathless here. Hopefully, others will add comments to this posting that explore other important themes and issues explored in this complex film. I will address the issue of free will. Both main characters, Michel and Patricia, are operating under a belief that they are making existential choices based on free will. However, the film expresses a point of view that this belief in free will is an illusion. It becomes pretty obvious early on to any astute viewer of this film that the trajectory Michel is on is analogous to that of a runaway train, bolting headlong down the tracks towards its eventual destruction in a fiery crash. Just as it would be silly to entertain the belief that a runaway train could make a free will choice to leave its tracks and avoid its ultimate fate, so too for Michel. The character Patricia similarly thinks she is exercising free will to make a decision about whether she wants to tie her fate to Michel or leave him and go a different direction separate from him. In the pivotal scene in the film regarding this issue, Patricia realizes that it was an illusion when she thought she was making a conscious free will decision that determined her actions. To the contrary, it was her actions that made the decision for her.

The assertion that free will is an illusion is compatible with Freudian psychoanalytic theory. Freud asserted that our true motivations for why we behave the way we do are unconscious. If you ask someone to explain why they behaved the way they did in a particular situation, they will give you an answer, but this answer is simply something that they made up after the fact to rationalize what they had done. For example, if you ask me to explain why I walked into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator, I might respond that I was hungry and made a conscious decision to go the the kitchen to get something to eat. I am not consciously lying when I make that statement. My answer reflects the way it feels to me psychologically when I reflect consciously about my own motivations. However, what actually happened was that an unconscious motivation caused me to walk in the kitchen and open the refrigerator, and after I discovered I had done that, I have an illusory feeling that my action reflected a conscious choice. Consistent with Freud, Patricia discovers this aspect of her own nature during the course of the film.

This theme from a film released in 1960 is surprisingly modern. There is a now a huge amount of evidence from psychology and neuroscience research that supports the basic assertion that our psychological feeling that our actions are based on free will is often illusory.

French New Wave is not one of my favorite genres as far as films I like to watch. However, Breathless is a film that needs to be viewed, analyzed, and discussed by any serious cinephile. On that basis, I gave this film a rating of 4 out of 5 stars.

Ron Boothe


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