Some Bollocks about Godard to Add to the Mountain of Bollocks Already Written About Godard.

When talking about the work of Jean-Luc Godard it is ill advised and well nigh impossible to consider his films without reference to his critical writings. Indeed, Godard himself has often asserted that his filmmaking is as much an exercise in criticism as his writing. The two are inextricably linked and, as Chris Darke notes, Goddard’s writing can be seen as preparation for his directorial debut in A bout de soufflé (France, 1960).1.

Before becoming a director, Jean-Luc Godard was a critic for the influential film journal Cahiers du Cinema.

In the 1950s, Godard — along with Andre Bazin, Francois Truffaut and other Cahiers writers — promoted auteur theory which argues that cinema should be approached with the notion that the director is the author – that is the prime creative force – behind a film. The notion was not new and had been around since the 1920s2but Cahiers gave it fresh impetus.

The main tool of auteur theorists became known as mise-en-scene criticism. The term mise-en-scene was borrowed from the theatre and refers to the way things are arranged within a scene.

The Cahiers group claimed that certain directors could lay claim to being artists. This notion and the arguments used to support it became known as ‘les politiques des auteurs’.

Auteur theory would probably have stirred little controversy but for the fact that the Cahiers group bestowed auteur theory on certain Hollywood directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawkes, John Ford and Samuel Fuller. They argued that even though these directors worked within the studio system, they nonetheless had a consistent, discernable style that marked each of their films as their own.

Of course not every director was so elevated in the eyes of the critics. Any director who lacked a personal vision (the main criterion for being deemed an auteur) was airily dismissed as a metteur-en-scene.

As Francois Truffaut put it in his seminal article Une Certaine Tendence du Cinema Francais which appeared in Cahiers no. 31 in January, 1954 : ‘when they (the screenwriters) hand in their scenario, the film is done: the metteur-en-scene, in their eyes, is the gentleman who adds pictures to it’.

Jean-Luc Godard was even more blunt when he addressed 21 major directors. ‘Your camera movements,’ he said, ‘are ugly because your subjects are bad, your casts act badly because your dialogue is worthless; in a word, you don’t know how to create cinema because you no longer even know what it is.’

In 1960, Godard put his money where his mouth was and directed A bout de soufflé which was as much a homage to the Hollywood films he loved as a reaction against the conservatism of contemporary French cinema. It was also his chance to put into practice that which he had been preaching as an auteur theorist. If ever a film was covered in the indelible fingerprints of its director, A bout de soufflé is it.

With this film, Godard tore up and then rewrote the rule book, but that is not to say that he re-invented the game completely.

In many respects, Breathless (to give it its English title) – a story about a hoodlum on the run from the police — is Hollywood film noir given a post-modernist slant. Stylistically, it owes more than a passing nod to Italian neo-realism as well as those American directors Godard regarded as auteurs.

Right from the start, Breathless is determined to misbehave itself. It opens with the protagonist, Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) preparing to steal a car. In voice-over he announces that he’s an arsehole — or possibly a tough guy depending on the translation. Either way the film has immediately broken with cinematic tradition.

As he rushes through the countryside in his stolen car, he talks aloud to himself. Then he suddenly turns to the audience and says, ‘If you don’t like the sea, and you don`t like the mountains, and you don`t like the big city, then go hang yourself.’ This is very subversive. The fourth wall is broken and we have been made active accomplices in Michel’s activities. From here on in, it is impossible to view the film in the manner to which we have become accustomed.

Godard used a number of techniques that were unconventional and which by rights should have spoiled the film as a piece of convincing cinema. These included shooting with black and white film, the use of hand-held camera, long takes and – most iconoclastic of all – jump cuts. According to the perceived wisdom of the time, A bout de soufflé should not have worked and yet it is one of the most cinematic of all films.

Until Breathless came along, it was pretty much agreed that the editing of a film should be seamless — that is the audience’s attention should not be drawn to its construction and should be left to lose themselves in the plot. Godard, however, goes out of his way to remind us that we are watching a film. Scenes that other directors would linger over, making sure we catch every significant detail, are put together in a seemingly haphazard manner and it’s often a case of ‘blink and you miss it’. For instance, when Michel shoots the policeman, we are offered a series of shots that give us no chance to anticipate what is about to happen and it is some seconds after the sequence that we realise what has just happened.

This frenetic editing is taken to extremes with the use of jump cuts. Even today this technique is frowned upon as the mark of an amateur but Godard clearly knew what he was doing and there is no doubt he could have avoided the jumps if he wanted to. Clearly he is thumbing his nose at the cinematic old guard.

The editing in Breathless, its use of natural lighting, actual locations and black and white film stock, all give the film a less than polished look. This is no accident. Godard has put a lot of effort into making Breathless the rough diamond it is. This is the critic in him coming through. He wants us to question the way films are made and to be aware of the conventions of cinema.

Of course there is more to Breathless than its form and technique. It has a story line which could have been lifted from any number of Hollywood B-movies but which is handled in a highly idiosyncratic and non-formulaic way. The plot has all the ingredients of a fast-paced thriller but Godard goes out of his way to confound our expectations. As David Borwell3 notes, ‘Brief scenes – some largely unconnected to [Michel’s] goals – alternate with long stretches of seemingly irrelevant dialogue’. Add to this the art house contrivance of almost one third of the film consisting of a conversation that is mostly small talk between Michel and Patricia (Jean Seberg), the girl he thinks he may love, and we are a long way from familiar B-movie territory.

None of the elements that make Breathless extraordinary originated with Godard. Other film-makers had used them before him but never so self-consciously. A bout de soufflé draws attention to the way it is put together in a manner that most other films go to great pains to avoid.

It should be borne in mind that Breathless was not alone in its aesthetic. Other Cahiers writers had also made, or were about to make, films with the same mind set. These films have been lumped together under the heading of Nouveau Vague (New Wave). Each was radical in its own way, but none as radical — and subversive — as Breathless.


Bibliography.

Nelmes, Jill (ed.), An Introduction to Film Studies – 3rd Edition, London, New York, Routledge, 2003

Hayward, Susan, Cinema studies – 2nd Edition, London, New York, Routledge, 2000

Bordwell, David and Thompson, Kristin. Film Art. An Introduction. New York, McGraw-Hill, 2001

1 Nelmes; p.443

2 Hayward; p.20

3 Bordwell and Thompson; p.367

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About Patrick Whittaker

I'm a writer and director of the occasional short film. Although a Londoner, I'm based in Blackpool on the north east coast of England.

Posted on October 13, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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