In addition to her function as aesthetic conscience of the Western world, France has always been a pioneer in moral matters. I don’t mean things like the so-called “French farce,” which has as little relevance to French life as to anyone’s; I mean, for instance, the fact that Madame Bovary was published in the same year as Little Dorrit and three years before The Marble Faun. The French continue to explore in both areas. Much of the result can be written off as mere excursion, like dadaism and the anti-novel, still they do it.
The penalty of this virtue is high expectation, which is why the much discussed New Wave of French films has been disappointing. Although several good films emerged from it, it has been more a Young Wave than a new one. But now, with the appearance of Breathless, we have a film that is new, aesthetically and morally.
The director—whose film this is in a way that no American film belongs to its director—is Jean-Luc Goddard, who is 30 and who wrote the screenplay from an idea suggested by Francois Truffault, director of The 400 Blows. This is Goddard’s first full-length film, and it quickly establishes that he has a style of his own and a point of view. He tells here the story of a restless, dissatisfied young man, and his camera follows the protagonist about like a puppy, wheeling and reversing and crowding up close; switching abruptly (without dissolves) as abruptly as the young man himself loses interest in one matter and goes on to the next. Form and subject are perfectly matched in this work.
That subject is the anti-hero—not to be described by the favorite cavil word “amoral” but immoral and living in an immoral world. He may have got there because of his revulsion or our exclusion of him, but that is where he now lives by upside-down standards. Already familiar to us through numerous works from Jairy through Celine to Camus, he now- appears on the screen: stealing, mugging, murdering—and engaging us. We do not bleed for him as the child of uncongenial parents or as an underprivileged waif. He is not to be cured by any of the cozy comforts of psychoanalysis or social meliorism. The trouble with this young man, although he doesn’t specifically know it, is history. If we understand him, it is because we know that he is contemporary society in extremis: that the dissolution of religious foundations and conceivable futures are in him carried to the ultimate, short of suicide. Yet this film is not a bid for sympathy, it is an assault on those who can be lulled by thinking that the leak is at the other end of the boat and anyway we’re only one-quarter under water. The film says, as have many French novels and plays, that if we concentrate on hoping for a revival of the past, we will all drown. What we must find is another boat—and what it is, Goddard presumably doesn’t know, any more than the rest of us; but (to change metaphors) at least he knows that it is fatal to cling to the bosom of the dead mother just because she is not yet stone cold.
The story of the film is simple: it is one long flight. Michel, a young Parisian drifter, steals a car in Marseilles, kills a policeman who follows him, hides out in Paris with an American girl (pregnant by him) while he tries to collect money owed for past thefts so that he can run off with her to Italy; finally is shot by the police while running away and continues to run—down the unheeding street—until he dies at the corner.
The style is all. The first two minutes make you think this is going to be a breezy Gallic comedy about crooks. A shapely girl-accomplice signals Michel when to snatch the car. Then, as he speeds out alone through the country, he sings, talks to himself, comments on the beautiful weather, finds a pistol in the glove compartment, plays with it as he drives, going “pop!” at the sun. He is soon cornered by a policeman and the gun does in fact go “pop,” but the actual shooting is not much realer to Michel than the pretended one. This playful violation of the bases of civilized behavior is typical of the film.
Although it exists in an anti-conventional world and although Michel’s hero is Humphrey Bogart, this is not a hard-boiled film. It is the epic of a romantic outlaw, as egocentric as romantics and outlaws always are, whose life seems the only natural one to him. It is a film of flawless consistency and uncompromised truth. It may not be your truth, but that, of course, is not the primary point.
Jean-Paul Belmondo, a young ex-boxer, makes his debut as Michel and, within film requirements, demonstrates that he is a capable actor: that is, he has imagination, sensibility, and the ability to behave credibly. Jean Seberg, of unblessed memory, is his American girl, and is quite adequate. Goddard sensed that her personal quality (not her actress quality) was exactly right for the part and has helped her get into the film.