The French New Wave: ‘À Bout de Souffle’

The French New Wave was born in 1950s France when urban areas, Paris being the most significant, were the epicentre of youthful rebellion and anarchism and was to be a n innovative rediscovery of filmmaking. A new generation of young directors such Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer and François Truffaut began making films which contested the cinematic conventions of classic pre-1950s Hollywood productions which they dubbed ‘Cinéma du Papa’; old man’s cinema. Another filmmaker who joined these in the Cahiers Group, writing for the Cahiers du Cinéma, a famous film journal founded by Andre Bazin, and producing such unprecedented films was Jean-Luc Godard who, in 1959, took one of Truffaut’s ideas, scripting and directing it into a production that was to become an infamous landmark within the French New Wave. This film was aptly named À bout de souffle which in English translation means ‘breathless’; an adjective which could be easily used to describe those who were enduring the claustrophobia of French society at the time. Also, the New Wave directors’ passion to express the bid for freedom and liberation from the suppressive shackles of French urban life. This is a theme which is a reoccurring motif throughout À bout de souffle and one which will be explored throughout the course of this essay.

Other key themes which will be discussed are the growing independence of women which leads to questions surrounding identity and power relations, the automobile as a domineering monster consuming society and taboos surrounding sexuality and crime within cinema being deconstructed. A close analysis of cinematic devices with the film will also be undertaken exploring elements such as Godard’s use of staccato editing, jump cuts, on location shooting, natural lighting, hand-held camera, lack of chronology or linear narrative and deliberate use of sound and how these defy classical conventions therefore complying to the typicalities of New Wave filmmaking. The extract that will be the main focus is from the moment when Michel and Patricia are traveling through the streets of Paris in a taxi to the point where the conversation between Patricia and and the Police Officer is consummated (59.55 to 105.48 minutes). This extract functions to show many of the themes and devices mentioned above which is why it is suitable for analysing how À bout de souffle relates in terms of content and form to the French New Wave.

One of the most outstanding themes within this extract and indeed the film in its entirety is the power of the newly independent woman and her dominance over the young, reckless man. Stars such as Brigitte Bardot, in Rodger Vadim’s 1956 production Et Dieu… créa la femme, brought a new femininity to French cinema bringing questions of female sexuality into the limelight. Patricia is not portrayed as the typical glamorous, voluptuous femme fatale that audiences had been used to and being introduced to Michel’s love interest as a small, flat chested, shorthaired girl is a cinematic revolution in itself. Hair is a symbol of femininity and Patricia’s cropped style extracts this womanliness, exerting her independence from the typical passive female role. Classical 1940s Hollywood painted females as objects of beauty and desire whose main function is to provide something for the male to gaze upon. and gain sexual pleasure over. However, during the lengthy bedroom scene, Godard uses close up shots of Patricia contorting her face into various unattractive expressions depicting her as the exact opposite of the stereotypical Hollywood image of female beauty. In her loosely fitted T-shirt and trousers, the character of Patricia represents ‘real’ women and somebody with whom ‘real’ audiences could relate to. Although, it is clear that image is still of some importance within this film when Patricia and Michel have a conversation that involved judging countries by how attractive their women are.

À bout de souffle was made during the aftermath of World War II when families and marriages had broken down due to husbands leaving the home for the frontline and women were gaining more and more presidency in their absence. The post-War period was a dismal time for France in which there was a great feeling of disenchantment. New Wave films were an anarchic criticism of the bourgeoisie within contemporary discourses; looking at the bourgeoisie from a youthful point of view and the characters are typically young and dissatisfied with life, which represents the general attitude within society at the time and Godard wanted to capture the image of a disillusioned generation through filmic medium. New Wave directors wanted to pull the country out of this depression and went about doing this by producing films such as À bout de souffle which showcase invigorating notions such as the independent woman, totally defying the conventional patriarchal take on cinema found in mainstream Hollywood.

In a more abstract approach, the cigarette could be viewed as a phallic symbol of masculinity and power and as the film progresses, so do Patricia and Michel’s smoking habits; the latter half of the film seems to have been filmed through a haze of cigarette smoke. This could be symbolic of her increasing dominance and his male anxiety becoming heightened due to this. It is in this extract that Patricia begins to consider telling the police about Michel’s whereabouts and through her relaxed disposition which is contrapuntal to Michel’s panic, enhanced by the fast-paced non-diegetic piano music, that it is clear she is aware of her power over Michel and her ability to hasten or prolong his eventual downfall. Unlike classical Hollywood where the female fawns over the male, Michel is controlled by Patricia which inverts the conventions of power relations causing an innovative role reversal. This power is also exerted over the audience when Patricia randomly announces her pregnancy which demonstrates her capability to withhold information from the audience, as well as Michel, leaving them unaware of something she is keeping hidden.

Godard employs the technique of hidden information throughout the film to put the audience, who are preconditioned to the passive viewing of easily comprehensible Hollywood narratives, in an uncomfortable position of exclusion from the action. In the extract, the camera remains in the taxi when Michel leaves and the screen is framed at an awkward angle by the car window with figures constantly passing by. This device prevents the audience from seeing the action first hand and are left to rely on the word of Michel who, as a murderer, thief and serial chauvinist, proves very difficult to rely upon. New Wave directors wanted films to be no longer exclusively for mass consumption but for audiences to become engaged with them and for there to be “intimate conversations” between those behind the camera and those sitting in front of the screen. There is also a lack of trust between Michel and the audience due to the “deliberate distanciation” caused by Godard between spectator and protagonist. However, the characters do, on various occasions, talk into the camera, making ‘eye contact’ with the viewer, suggesting a bond could be developed but this technique is actually employed by Godard to remind the audience that it is a film and to be aware that it is not reality but a representation of it.

Realism was a notion that New Wave directors strove towards through their use of hand-held camera to give the film a documentary-like flare. New Wave films were often filmed using a Cameflex camera which was hand-held to give an intentionally shakey, dynamic atmosphere within the films. It is reported that Godard used a mail cart and wheelchair as dollies in À bout de souffle which could explain how he achieved such a jerky quality to his cinematography and the notion of realism within a fictional film. This effect is achieved within the chosen extract to give the audience a feeling that they are in the car with the characters as the screen jumps in a seasickness-inducing fashion. Furthermore, the film stock consisted of hand-joined rolls of a fast Ilford, black and white, still camera stock which allowed Godard to produce the grainy, naturalistic effects which made the film seem realistic and close to reality.

Godard is described as the “Picasso of Film” (Monaco, 1976) for his abstract, unconventional way of displaying things in a way which is never easily grasped by the spectator and a lengthy shot of a Picasso piece is actually featured in the film in Patricia’s bedroom. The film was made entirely without sound and Godard edited a post-synchronised version which was an hour too long. Godard had a haphazard approach to editing which meant the soundtrack of the film is in it’s own time, with it’s own autonomy, regardless of the image or action which was an unprecedented concept for French cinema.

Sound is a key element within À bout de souffle and a device used intentionally by Godard to convey messages. For example, music is vital in the extract to create a sense of chaos and make the audience feel frantic and breathless as Michel clearly does whilst being chased by the police. Music is also used as a stylistic element to elevate Michel’s character and make the audience feel warmth towards him even though what he is doing is dastardly. His actions are usually accompanied by Jazz music and he is always dressed smartly even when committing crimes such as knocking an innocent man unconscious in the toilet to steal his money. This technique used by Godard lifts taboos on crime and actually glamourises them which would be appealing to a rebellious, youthful audience. Moreover, throughout the film, there are constant non-diegetic sounds of car horns, police sirens, trains on tracks and aeroplanes which function as constant reminders that Michel is being chased and is in a race against time which is an attitude that was taken by the new socially active youth class during the New Wave. With the revelation of things like the Atomic Bomb, people took the carpe diem attitude towards life of living for the day because you do not know how long you have left.

The theme of time is also explored through the New Wave convention of ordering the narrative, or not ordering as it may be. The narratives of New Wave films are often built around chance events and are digressive and open-ended and do not follow Todorov’s model of equilibrium to disequilibrium to re-equilibrium. This disorientates the spectator leaving them unaware of the time or spacial context of most events. At the beginning of the extract, there is a sudden cut to Michel and Patricia traveling through Paris in a taxi yet we have no idea where they met up, where they caught the taxi or how long they have been traveling. This technique creates a sense of spontaneity; a ‘Cinéma-vérité‘ which was more associated with television productions at the time which were mostly live. Disorientation is also achieved in New Wave productions through lack of establishing shots as opposed to Hollywood productions who set the scene and gently ease the passive viewer along the storyline in a strive towards seamlessness. In an interview at Cannes in 1960, Godard completely contests this classical convention and explained how he loved filmmaking less after À bout de souffle as he felt that the critical acclaim lead audiences to trust him and said that he hoped to disappoint them in order to lose their trust and keep them on their toes as opposed to comfortable and assuming.

The extract being focused on also displays Godard’s infamous use jump cuts and jerky editing which function to startle the viewer and break the fluidity of the visual. During this scene, various shots of the back of the taxi drivers head are shown as if the audience is sat in the back seat of the car and Godard makes uses a montage of images from this same position, linked with extremely rapid jump cuts, to increase the pace of the sequence. This creates a sense of panic as Michel is being chased which is complemented by the fast-paced piano music mentioned previously and gives the scene a feeling of breathlessness which is of course, linked to the title of the film that, in exact translation, means literally ‘at breaths end’. In addition, there are abrupt changes in screen direction and size as well as a change from static to moving figures which is synonymous to Godard. For example, the camera goes from focusing on the back of the taxi drivers head in a mid-shot with his head taking up a majority of the foreground of the shot to shooting out of the taxi window with people walking in various directions past our eye line which serves to disorientate the viewer and fragmenting the shot to challenge spectator assumptions.

During the Occupation in the 1940s, French film production had gone into decline but thanks to German fiance, it picked up again by 1943 and in the decade following this liberation, French filmmakers were exploiting the conventions established by cinema of the Occupation to ensure commercial success. Films were mainly literary adaptations or historical subjects and produced a cinema which the Cahiers branded ‘La Tradition de Qualité’ and was heavily critiqued by Truffaut in Cahiers’ journal on New Years Day 1954. The New Wave sought to sabotage the orthodox format of La Tradition de Qualité which was definitely achieved in one way through Godard’s use of choppy editing and jump cuts which are clearly at work within this exemplary extract. Also during this period of liberation following the Occupation, Hollywood productions flooded into France and threatened the commercial viability of the native cinema and subsidies were introduced to help protect French cinema. However, this surge of American cinema over France clearly had an impact on New Wave filmmakers as there is a distinct amount of homages to Hollywood throughout their films. Throughout À bout de souffle, Michel has an ongoing obsession with Hollywood star Humphrey Bogart and goes so far as to mimic his infamous lip rub which is one example of intertextuality within the film. Another is the constant references to famous writers such as William Faulkner and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

To conclude, it is fair to say that the extract from À bout de souffle and the film as a whole do relate very closely in terms of content and form to the French New Wave. It contains taboo subjects such as crime, explores the theme of racing against time, represents the feeling of disenchantment that people were feeling towards society at the time in post-War France, portrays rebellion, change in attitude towards women and therefore the power relations between them and men. These are all shot using hand-held camera, on location in Paris with a gritty, documentary effect that is edited to include jump cuts and montage; two elements synonymous with the New Wave. À bout de souffle was also had a very low budget of 400,000 Francs and contained improvised dialogue from non-professional actors as no complete script was prepared before shooting. However, the fact that the film does comply to all of these New Wave conventions is a contradiction in itself as the Nouvelle Vague strove towards rule breaking and being unique yet still conceived a set of rules by which all New Wave directors, including Godard, have followed.

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