I’ve never seen a Jean-Luc Godard movie. Or, I hadn’t, until this assignment. I know, embarrassing, especially for a so-called film critic. I’ve long blamed this gap in my knowledge on the fact that I didn’t take a first year university course in French New Wave cinema, but I know as well as anyone you don’t need to be a student to study. It’s not even that the Nouvelle Vague is a blind spot, necessarily – I’m an admirer of other films from the movement, such as Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour, Agnés Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7, François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim and Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. I’ve been known to treat my lack of interest in Godard’s filmography as something of a comedy bit, joking that I simply prefer Truffaut (he’s less of a basic bitch).
With French film journal Cahiers du Cinéma (RIP) back in the news after its writers quit en masse this February, it feels like an appropriate time to revisit some of the film-makers made famous by the magazine following its launch in 1951. Rohmer, Rivette, Chabrol, Truffaut, and, yes, fine, Godard, were early champions of auteurism, the theory that the director is king. Now the most widely accepted way to read a film, at the time it represented radical rejection of commercial cinema, which tailored to a studio’s whims and centred on the screenwriter. And so, with some trepidation, I cued up Godard’s first and most famous film, his 1960 debut À Bout de Souffle.
I know this film, I thought, despite never having watched it. I know the monochrome imagery, the jump cuts, the cigarette dangling from Jean-Paul Belmondo’s mouth. I know Jean Seberg’s Breton stripes, her gamine pixie haircut and her New York Herald Tribune T-shirt. What I didn’t know was what the film was actually about. Something about a guy, and a girl, and a car, I’d guessed. Turns out, I wasn’t far off.
Michel (Belmondo) steals a car and shoots a policeman; attempting to lay low in Paris, he ends up in the hotel room of former fling Patricia (Seberg), an American studying at the Sorbonne. The plot is inspired by film noir, but the vérité-style handheld camera, real locations and naturalistic speech transform it from a pulpy gangster thriller into a hangout movie. There’s sex, betrayal and an antihero to anchor the narrative, but hard-boiled dialogue is swapped for digressive, philosophical rambling, in-jokes and winking addresses to the audience. “I’m a sonofabitch,” Michel says, direct to camera. Ah, I realised. This is what people mean when they say Godard changed the grammar of cinema.
Godard’s influence on New Hollywood cinema and directors such as Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman and Brian de Palma started to become clear, especially in the constant chatter and casual violence. And, I guess, the sexism. Michel is a self-described scumbag but it doesn’t quite let him off the hook for declaring all women drivers “cowardice personified”, refusing to pick up two female hitchhikers because they’re “too ugly” and the fetishisation of Patricia’s constituent body parts. I imagine Godard thought it romantic to describe the lovely “gleam” in Patricia’s eyes that emerged when she was “afraid and confused”. I found it disturbing. In another scene, Patricia is trying to have an intelligent conversation about William Faulkner. “Show me your toes,” replies a horny, distracted Michel (hello, Quentin Tarantino).
Still, I didn’t hate it. I didn’t hate it at all. I found myself drawn in by the irrepressible buoyancy of its narrative rhythms. I liked how the improvised jazz score creates the feeling of spontaneity. I was into the spirited sexual energy that animates the film and, clearly, the film-maker as Paris entered a new decade after the stifling conformity of the 1950s. Which Godard film shall I watch next?