Breathless (À Bout De Souffle)

This is the third time I’ve watched Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless in 10 months, and I’ve been studying it as part of a film course with Exeter University, where two modules (or rather two weeks) were devoted to it. One exercise I had to carry out was to pick a scene and write about anything that struck me with regard to the cinematography and editing; I picked a scene in which criminal Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and on-off girlfriend Patricia (Jean Seberg) travel across Paris in a taxi. The scene starts around the hour mark, if you’re interested, and rather than write another review of the film I’ve set out my notes on the next two minutes below. (*****)

The previous scene finishes with Michel attacking a car dealer who he believes has wronged him, and then taking some money from the dealer’s till to pay for a taxi. By this point in the story the police’s net appears to be closing in on Michel, so he is increasingly showing signs of agitation and being more violent toward others.

The sequence begins with a black screen and the familiar jazzy music with a fast tempo, which indicates to us that we are entering into a new phase of the film. Michel and Patricia are in the back of a taxi and we see the back of the taxi driver’s head as well as the view out of the front window from their point of view (specifically Michel’s point of view). Like many of the car scenes in the film the handheld camera makes you feel like you are present in the vehicle. The car does not appear to be going particularly fast, but due to the music and Michel’s barked instructions to the taxi driver, during which he barely pauses for breath, it all seems to be happening very quickly.

When Michel and Patricia are filmed from the front seat it’s a medium close shot of the pair. Godard then includes a couple of shots that I would describe as medium-full or full shots of buildings; Michel switches the topic from being ripped off by the car dealer to discussing the apartment block he was born in and the newer one opposite. The sequence then switches between the shots of the couple in the back and the shots of the taxi driver’s head while Michel continues to bark orders and insults. The pace seems to quicken further when Godard uses jump cuts to skip parts of the journey. All the while the same urgent music continues.

The sequence continues with a new and striking shot out of the side windows of the taxi after it has pulled over. This splits the background in three: on the right-hand side through the driver’s window we can see Michel conducting some kind of business, but it’s so far away we can’t tell what is being said, what is happening or who he is talking to. Obviously the conventional thing to do in this instance would be to cut to a close-up of Michel’s conversation, but Godard keeps the action in the car, wrongfooting us by staying with characters who are presumed to be incidental to the scene. Ordinarily our attention would switch to Seberg’s Patricia, but she moves out of the shot very quickly, reclining in her seat. (I like to think that this in itself reveals a little of her state of mind – she is possibly on edge and alert, and as soon as Michel gets out of the car she relaxes a little, but perhaps I’m reading too much into it!)

While Michel is talking some distance away, we see people and cars in the middle ground and background as they ‘move’ through the background space, which we can see via the driver’s window, the passenger side window and a little bit of the back window. It’s a busy street scene and the number of figures and vehicles that suddenly appear keeps the established pace going, despite the fact the taxi is stationary. I think we see about 19 people and cars in total in the space of just a few seconds, but when Michel starts walking back to the car the area suddenly becomes clearer and we can concentrate on his approach. This whole shot puts physical distance between the two main characters, perhaps to indicate a lack of togetherness. It struck me that the shot looks as if it is sporadic and freewheeling, like much of the film does – as if Raoul Coutard was just filming whoever happened to be passing at the time; that may well have been the case, but I suspect it was well-planned and choreographed beforehand.

We’re still in the car as it pulls away, but Michel and Patricia have now swapped seats. The sequence carries on with a medium-close shot of the two, but a jump cut occurs almost immediately that enables us to skip more of their journey (though it seems as though we don’t miss any of the conversation, oddly). There are more shots from the back seat as Michel barks at the driver and a repeat of the shot of the couple as they talk to one another. There are more jump cuts but they only seem to take out a second or two of the journey, if that. I wondered why Godard did this, as it won’t have saved him much time on the final edit (the jump cuts were famously used to reduce the overall running time); perhaps these are here to create a sense of a fractured/fracturing relationship?

The sequence ends in a surreal, unexpected fashion with a long shot of Michel getting out of the car, before he crosses the road to lift up the skirt of a passing woman. It’s an unpredictable, shocking action that reinforces what we already know about his attitude to women and his impulsive nature. The sequence (and the music) ends with a jump cut to the couple getting out of the taxi and a long shot of them walking through a courtyard.

For me the sequences that really stood out during the film were the ones like this that fit the most with its title – this is a ‘breathless’ two minutes, full of quick cuts and rapidly-spoken dialogue. While you’re in the moment it seems as though what you’re watching will be crucial to understanding the narrative; however I don’t think that’s actually the case.