Bump-ba-dum-bump-bum...bump-ba-dum-bump-bum-ba-dum! Jean Luc Godard's À bout de souffle is...so...cool. Maybe that's all it is. That's not a criticism. It's exciting, confusing, jagged, movie-obsessed, and absolutely enthralling in a trashy, ultra-hip way. It moves like a broken carnival ride.
The title of this film, À bout de souffle, is translated from the French as Breathless, but it seems to translate better as "Out of Breath" or "An End of Breath." These have very different connotations from just Breathless, which conjures TV thrillers or cheap romance novels. Indeed, Jean-Paul Belmondo's Michel Poiccard is never really out of breath throughout most of the film. He's nearly always cool, charming, collected, even up to the last second--when he becomes truly "out of breath."
If Buck Henry were trying to sell the story idea of Breathless to an executive in Robert Altman's The Player, he might describe it as "sort of a mixture of Breakfast at Tiffany's and Reservoir Dogs--in black and white." On its surface level, À bout de souffle is all style. The plot is boring and conventional, the characters seem rootless, and it all has a great feeling of disconnection from itself. Still, looked at in its totality, it is strangely complete and compelling.
The film tells the story of Michel and Patricia (the entrancing Jean Seberg), a French gangster and an American girl in Paris who meet, couple, and drift. They discuss things, mistreat one another, and stay cool.
I must admit that much of my enjoyment of the film aside from simply appreciating it as a work came from knowing that Godard and his co-writer, or more accurately, the original writer of the screenplay, François Truffaut, were great inspirations for filmmakers Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary, who co-wrote Pulp Fiction, and who wrote, respectively, Reservoir Dogs, True Romance, Natural Born Killers and From Dusk Till Dawn, and Killing Zoe. Tarantino also directed Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.
The visual ties to the films of Tarantino are obvious. Tarantino uses long tracking shots in the same way that Godard does, following great blocks of action and dialogue around with the camera, not cutting back and forth much, if at all, for extended periods of time. There are not as many jump cuts as in À bout de souffle, but then some of the experiments of the New Wave had to fail after their initial novelty wore off. Also, the gangster characters of Tarantino's films dress like Belmondo in À bout de souffle, usually with darker suits, however. They wear ridiculously mistied ties and suits with thin lapels that make them look desperate yet slick. They smoke cigarettes and swear and look contemplative at times when you know they're probably not thinking about anything important at all.
And to get even more specific, Tarantino's films live in the same parallel world of crime and cafes and pop culture as the world created in À bout de souffle. Michel Poiccard says "Je fonce, Alphonse," ("See you later, Alphonse") when he leaves the girl after stealing the car at the coast, and "Tu parles, Charles," ("You did, Charlie") when speaking to Patricia in her room. In Pulp Fiction, we have Jules Winnfield telling Brad, "My name's Pitt, and you ain't talkin' your way out of this shit," and Paul the Bartender saying, "My name's Paul, and this is between y'all." M. Tolmatchoff's costume and demeanor bear a striking resemblance to Pulp Fiction's Winston Wolf. Godard continues storylines from other movies he liked, such as Jean-Pierre Melville's Bob le flambeur and Otto Preminger's Bonjour Tristesse. Tarantino continues storylines and characters from Ringo Lam's City on Fire, Max Nosseck's Dillinger, and Joseph Sargent's The Taking of Pelham One Two Three in Reservoir Dogs and from John Badham's Point of No Return (itself a remake of Luc Besson's Nikita) and Reb Braddocks's Curdled (1991) in Pulp Fiction.
Both directors also parody themselves in subsequent works and make cameo appearances in their own films. They also indulge themselves in seemingly wandering dialogue which then subtly or unsubtly reveals things about the characters that make them seem real and immediate. Godard quotes Faulkner, Lenin, Aragon and Apollinaire--and other movies; Tarantino quotes Madonna, Marvel comics, and Clutch Cargo--and other movies. The music comments as much as the dialogue.
What this reveals about À bout de souffle is that its lessons have not quite been digested by the movie world when Tarantino can make such a big splash by putting his own spin on them and presenting them again as innovative. And also that the American emphasis on story, story, and story can go too far when such satisfying, superficially shallow films can come to take on such depth and meaning.
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