Fifty years ago, if cinemagoers had been told that a group of young French writers at the Cahiers du Cinema were going to try their hand at filmmaking and change cinema forever, few would have believed it. Yet, half a century on sees the fiftieth anniversary DVD rerelease of Jean-Luc Godard’s masterpiece (and yes, it really does deserve this moniker), A Bout de Souffle (1960), a film which has now become the “poster child” for a whole revolutionary film movement.
While you may be thinking that in reality not much of the cinematic experience has changed – that films now are as much about spectacle as they were back in Hollywood’s Golden Era (if not more so) – what ‘La Nouvelle Vague‘ (‘The French New Wave’) and indeed A Bout de Souffle both represent is the view of cinema as not merely entertainment, but as art. Godard’s ingenuity is responsible for carving out a future perspective of both filmmaking and film criticism that still grips and inspires artists and spectators today.
More commonly known by its English title Breathless, the film’s plot carries a simple enough premise: a French car thief and a beautiful young American girl share a love affair that ends inevitably with his dramatic demise. However, what shapes Breathless as such an influential and long lasting ‘classic’ of French cinema is Godard’s ferocious delivery of simplistic subject matter, his direction of iconic actors Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg, and his all-out gallantry in creating the first of many films that broke all the rules, both in his homeland and overseas.
Godard’s daring approach to filmmaking brought about several drastic changes. Leaving behind the lavish, high-budget cinema of the French literary adaptations of the 30s, 40s and 50s, the directors of La Nouvelle Vague utilised vital new technology that allowed them to take their cameras out of the stuffy constraints of the studio and into the world; their world: Paris.
Able to portray cinema through their own, vigorous perceptions, the films of La Nouvelle Vague echo the strong opinions of their creators. Attempting on every level to create something that could stand against the bourgeoisie of the France they had grown up in, Godard’s films in particular denote increasingly active political and artistic statements. At the heart of Godard’s inspiration dwells an ideology founded in his own acute awareness of American cinema from his experiences as a film critique for the Cahiers du Cinema. His oft-recalled statement: “All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun’”, has never rang so true than in Breathless.
Jean Seberg’s effortlessly cool persona brings with it a whole barrage of iconic representatives of both American popular culture and sophisticated ‘Frenchness’. The countless premeditated references to such iconoclastic cinematic moments as Humphrey Bogart’s trademark smoking pose detail just how conscious of his actions Godard really was, even back at the beginning of what has since become a lifelong career. If you haven’t already seen Breathless, it’s certainly about time that you did.
Laura J. Smith