“French Connection II” - John Frankenheimer (1975)

French Connection II (1975) is an American action-adventure film that was a followup to The French Connection (1971).  That earlier film was a huge commercial success and won US Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Actor (Gene Hackman), Best Director (William Friedkin), Best Film Editing, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Though the sequel under discussion here, French Connection II, was also commercially successful, the overwhelming majority of viewers preferred  the first film.  But not me – I think French Connection II is the superior film. Admittedly, The French Connection was polished, entertaining, and had non-stop audiovisual  pyrotechnics, but it didn’t quite match some of the sublime passages of French Connection II. And, overall, even though The French Connection had a fascinatingly gritty surface, it lacked the existential delirium of its successor [1].

Both films feature an epic battle between New York Detective Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (played by Gene Hackman) and the wealthy French drug kingpin Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), but they have different settings and, aside from Hackman and Rey, different casts.  The contrast between these two antagonists, particularly in French Connection II,  is striking: Charnier is upper-class, polished, and seems to have unlimited resources: while Doyle is lower-class, socially clumsy, and usually acts alone. The earlier film is primarily set in New York City, while French Connection II is set in Marseilles.  The viewer of the sequel does not really need to know anything about the earlier film.  The main thing is that Charnier got away at the end of that earlier story, and Popeye Doyle is still after him.

The story of French Connection II is divided into three almost equal-lengthed acts.  In fact these three acts are so distinct that they seem like three separate stories.  The real payoff comes in the last act; but, still, your appreciation of that last act has been setup by what has come earlier.

1.  Popeye Arrives in Marseilles
Detective Popeye Doyle, with his signature pork pie hat, arrives at the Marseilles police yard (“Hotel de Police Services Generaux”) and introduces himself to French Inspector Henri Barthélémy (Bernard Fresson), to whom he has been assigned to work under in order to hunt down drug mastermind Alain Charnier.  This first act is devoted to highlighting just how much Doyle is a fish out of water and how difficult it will be for him to make headway in this foreign setting.  Although Doyle is presumably a hardened professional concerning police activities, he seems naive and socially insecure on the interpersonal level.  Perhaps to compensate for his self-perceived limitations, he is aggressively rude and vulgar to anyone who doesn’t immediately accommodate him.  On top of that, he seems to have a slew of despicable racial and cultural prejudices.  Nevertheless, as the story proceeds, Doyle’s vulnerabilities and predominant genuineness draw the viewer as an existential passenger aboard Doyle’s tumultuous experiential train. Despite whatever misgivings we may have about Doyle’s character, we are empathetically drawn into Doyle’s world, despite ourselves, and this is what makes the entire story compelling.  Credit for this more alluring psychological ambience present in French Connection II, must probably be given to two key production figures who were not part of The French Connection – director John Frankenheimer and cinematographer Claude Renoir, who was the grandson of painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir and a nephew of Jean Renoir.

These early sequences of Popeye are intercut with some scenes showing an ocean liner in dry dock at the Marseille port.  An adjutant of Alain Charnier, Jacques (Philippe Léotard), watches the liner intently, and he later furtively passes a money bag to a Japanese ship officer associated with the liner.  Clearly these people are part of the drug operation that Doyle seeks to foil. 

To show the magnitude of just what the lone and alienated Doyle is up against, we soon see Charnier amiably discussing his operations with an American, who turns out to be a high-ranking US military officer.  So even important people inside the US military are part of Charnier’s criminal syndicate.

Also in this act, the contrast between Popeye Doyle and Inspector Henri Barthélémy as police operatives is highlighted.  While Barthélémy emphasizes due process, Doyle is reckless and risks human lives to capture a suspect.  This is shown in one scene of a police drug raid in which Doyle’s rash pursuit of someone fleeing the scene, but who was actually a police informer, led to that person’s death.  But that is the way Doyle operates: possible collateral damage doesn’t enter his mind.

Later during a long-distance phone conservation between Barthélémy and Doyle’s US-based superiors, it is revealed that Doyle sent to Marseilles without being told that he was to be used as bait to draw Charnier out in the open (so we see that disregard for collateral damage seems to be routine on the US police side). Barthélémy regards this as unethical but agrees to go along with it and assigns two of his men to secretively trail Doyle at all times in order to protect him.

Doyle’s isolation is further depicted as he is shown cruising around Marseilles looking for girls at bars and chatting with bartenders, all the while struggling with the fact that he cannot speak French and noone he encounters can speak English. In the course of these activities, he is surreptitiously spotted by Charnier.  When Doyle detects that he is being shadowed by French police, he gives them the slip and is then immediately captured by Charnier’s men.

2.  Popeye’s Torment
The narrative now moves to Act 2, and it seems like we have been transferred into a different movie.  The pace slows down, and Popeye’s world shrinks to his handcuffed confinement in a small flophouse hotel under the supervision of Charnier’s men. They want to know what he knows about Charnier’s operations, and in order to get him to talk, they give their prisoner daily injections of heroin in order to get him addicted. Then they will torture their prisoner by only offering him further injections if he spills the beans.  At first Doyle is defiant, but gradually he slips into a drug-induced haze.  He finally confesses that he knows nothing and that he was sent over to France simply because he was the only one who could recognize and idenetify Charnier.

There is one interesting red-herring vignette when an aged British lady comes to his room and consolingly speaks to him.  Finally, it seems,he has met someone who speaks English and appears to be sympathetic.  The viewer’s anticipation that she might help is soon crushed when it is revealed that she is also a heroin junkie and has only approached him in order to steal his watch.

Charnier’s gang finally give Doyle what should be a lethal dose of heroin and then dump him on the road. Barthélémy and his men quickly find Doyle and attend to his emergency circumstances by pumping his stomach and giving him cardiac arrest treatment. Afterwards, they choose to detox him by making him go “cold turkey”, instead of by gradual withdrawal. This agonizing detox period is shown for the next ten minutes of screen time and slows the film’s pace even more.  For some viewers this section of the film is too drawn out, but it does offer Gene Hackman a platform to give a bravura acting performance as he goes through his withdrawal symptoms in front of the patiently attending Barthélémy.  In particular there is a memorable seven-minute monologue during which Doyle tries to explain his interest in baseball and its arcane culture, including his early encounter with the legendary Mickey Mantle, to the uncomprehending Frenchman.  Any baseball fan will sympathize with Doyle’s frustration when his listener doesn’t even know what a southpaw is. 

Gradually Popeye recovers from the addiction and sets about rehabilitating himself in order to renew his struggle against Charnier.

3.  Popeye Takes Over
After the painful and dolorous 2nd act and now with Doyle back at full strength, the narrative pace is cranked up maximally for Act 3. Notions of due process now take a back seat to Popeye's impetuosity. This is where the film really comes into its own, but the previous two acts set things up for this final fever pitch to have its full effect. There are three high-tension episodes in this act that keep the relentless narrative momentum of this act rolling at a high speed:
  1. Torching the Flophouse
  2. Battle in the Dry Dock
  3. Busting the Drug Lab

3.1 Torching the Flophouse
The first such episode occurs when Popeye, now back out on the street, finally notices a sign that he recognizes is associated with the flophouse where he had been incarcerated.  He immediately gets a can of gasoline and torches the whole place.  This vengeful and impetuous action may have cost some lives of the inhabitants, but it flushes everyone out of the flophouse.  Popeye then savagely catches and beats a person that he recognizes fleeing the blaze and forces him to reveal the whereabouts of Charnier: he is at the ship dry dock seen at the beginning of the film.

3.2 Battle in the Dry Dock
The second episode follows on immediately when Popeye, Barthélémy, and some police rush over to the dry dock where Charnier’s gang is removing metal containers, presumably carrying drugs, that were welded to the ship’s hull.  When Charnier’s man, Jacques, notices the police sneaking up on them, a spectacular gunfight breaks out, with Jacques blazing away with a submachine gun.  Popeye and Barthélémy get trapped in the bottom of the dry dock, and the gang proceeds to open the floodgates in order to drown them.  Popeye and Barthélémy barely survive the battle, and Charnier gets away.
The next day Barthélémy is about to arrest the ship’s captain for complicity in the heroin trafficking when Popeye convinces Barthélémy to let the man go free. By surreptitiously tracking operations at the docked ship, he argues, they can trace a connection to Charnier.  By now Popeye is calling all the shots, and the hitherto more methodical Barthélémy is gradually adopting Popeye’s breakneck style.  Popeye’s philosophy of shoot first and ask questions later has taken over. When they trace another one of Jacques’s moneybag transfers to Charnier’s drug lab headquarters, the stage is set for the third episode.
3.3 Busting the Drug Lab
When they reach Charnier’s drug lab, they don’t block all the exits and lay siege to the place, demanding surrender. That would be too logical.  Instead they just burst through the door with guns blazing.  Again there seems to be a needless loss of lives by the police acting so recklessly.  And again Charnier slips away, but Popeye follows in hot pursuit.  We now come to the sublime final 7 minutes and 40 seconds of the film, when Popeye exhaustively chases after Charnier.  This passage is accompanied by oddly contemplative background music by Don Ellis (he also did the music for The French Connection) that further adds to the effect and makes the rivoting ending of the film almost surreal. 

Fernando Rey is very good in the role of Charnier, and even minor changes to his facial expressions often convey changes to his thinking while he is in conversation. Also effective is the performance of Bernard Fresson as Henri Barthélémy. But Gene Hackman’s performance as Popeye Doyle stands out above all, and his performance in this film was, in my opinion, the best of his stellar career.  It must have been extremely strenuous for him. There are many shots showing him maneuvering in perilous situations where his clear visibility indicates there was no double used [2]. He is the one who creates a character that connects those three disparate acts into a meaningful whole and makes those final minutes so memorable.

  1. A detailed comparison of the two films might be interesting, but I won’t pursue that topic here.
  2. Indeed those chase scenes inivolving Hackman must have been particulary strenuous for him, since he was suffering from a damaged knee  – see http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0073018/trivia.

“The Hundred-Foot Journey” - Lasse Hallstrom (2014)

The Hundred-Foot Journey (2014) is an American-made dramatic comedy set in France.  Based on the novel of the same name by Richard C. Morais, it tells the tale of the cultural clash and rivalry that takes place in a French town when an Indian restaurant is opened across the street (100 feet away) from an upscale, haute-cuisine local restaurant.  Directed by veteran Lasse Hallstrom (The Cider House Rules, 1999; Chocolat, 2000), the film has been a big commercial success.

The story begins with the Kadam family migrating to Europe after (as shown in flashbacks) an unruly mob in India that was embroiled in some unspecified political conflict had burned down their family restaurant in Mumbai.  With Mama Kadam having been killed in the blaze, the family now consists of the vigorous patriarch, Papa Kadam (played by Om Puri), along with his five children. Due to the happenstance of their family touring van breaking down on the road near a picturesque, provincial French town, they decide to settle there.  The middle-aged, but still energetic, Papa Kadam soon decides to buy a defunct restaurant site and turn it into his own style of Indian restaurant.

The problem with Papa Kadam’s plan, as his young-adult children point out to him, is that French people don’t customarily eat Indian cuisine, and the site he has chosen for his restaurant is directly across the road from an established French restaurant, Le Saule Pleureur ("The Weeping Willow"). The restaurant is owned and run by a haughty middle-aged woman, Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren), who treasures her sense of class and the fact that her restaurant is the only one in the area that has the difficult-to-achieve Michelin one-star rating.

So the stage is now set for an all-out “war” between the two competing restaurants, which represent contrasting extremes along several lines – food, culture, cosmopolitanism.  The narrative focalization centers on three key figures:

  • Madame Mallory, the culinary perfectionist who represents the refined and disdainfully exclusivist French.
  • Papa Kadam, the never-say-die competitor, who represents the boisterous and scruffy Indians.
  • Hassan Kadam (Manish Dayal), the second-eldest son of Papa Kadam and the chef for his restaurant.  Partly because of his romantic interest in Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), a French girl who works as a sous-chef for Madame Mallory, he politely tries to be a peacemaker and find an accommodating common ground between the two seemingly irreconcilable competing camps.

The comedic elements of the film arise from the various belligerent ploys undertaken by the two warring sides.  Throughout much of it, most of the characters, especially Madame Mallory and Papa Kadam, are shown as exaggerated stereotypes, with only Hassan appearing to be a normal and compassionate human being.  This naturally makes him the hero in this tale. 

The escalating conflict culminates when Jean-Pierre (Clément Sibony), the belligerent and racist chef for Madame Mallory, arranges for some thugs to torch the Kadam restaurant, just as had happened back in Mumbai.  This regrettable event, which results in serious injuries to Hassan, is a step too far for Madame Mallory.  She summarily dismisses her chef and tries to make amends with the Kadam family.  Eventually, she even hires the talented Hassan, at a good salary, to be her chef to replace Jean-Pierre (thereby inducing him to take a “hundred-foot journey”). This rapprochement, combined with the emerging culinary talents of Hassan, leads to aspirations for Le Saule Pleureur to achieve a second Michelin star.

To be sure, The Hundred-Foot Journey is one of those “food movies”, and by this I don’t just mean a movie in which food is an important factor in the story; I mean a movie that is virtually about food.  Throughout the film there are closeup shots of either French or Indian cooks preparing their scrumptious dishes with carefully chosen spices.  It doesn’t show the food being delivered to the clientele or being eaten, just the obsessive preparation of it.  There is a tradition of such films, including Babette’s Feast (1987), Like Water for Chocolate (1992), and Chocolat (2000), and they seem to attract a devoted following of food (preparation) lovers.  I am not a devotee of this genre, but I do have a particular liking for Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), and The Fish Fall in Love (2006).

Outside of the scope of the genre, the film has some limitations.  The characterizations are a bit too over-the-top to have any believability, although both Helen Mirren and Om Puri (who has appeared in an astonishing total of about 280 mostly Bollywood films over his career), do very well within the limitations of their roles. For the one role that is more nuanced and realistic, that of Hassan Kadam, there is a different issue. Manish Dayal affects something of a cherubic demeanor in this role, but his persistent stubble-beard looks slovenly and put me off. I know there is a whole sector of society that likes to see guys sporting a perpetual 3-day facial hair growth, but to me it displays an attitude and represents a weak attempt to project manhood.

The cinematography in the film is variable. For example, the two fire-bombing scenes when the two Kadam Indian restaurants are torched on two separate occasions are so chaotic and stroboscopic as to be just confusing blitzes of flashing lights.  On the other hand on the occasion of when Papa Kadam is having his new restaurant built, there are two sequential tracking shots – one of 40 seconds and the following one of 66 seconds – that are truly wonderful. Actually these two shots are almost seamlessly put together and work as a single roving witness, as the camera almost hypnotically follows the multifarious activities undertaken by the various family members.

Anyway, if you truly are a food-movie fanatic and you are really into food, then you would probably know that the competition was always likely to be one-sided.  After all, is there any other national cuisine in the world as rich and tasty as Indian food?

Jean-Luc Godard

Films of Jean-Luc Godard:
  • Breathless (A Bout de Souffle) - Jean-Luc Godard (1960)

“Breathless” - Jean-Luc Godard (1960)

Jean Luc-Godard’s first feature, Breathless (A Bout de Souffle, 1960), was not the first French New Wave (Nouvelle Vague) film, but it soon became its signature work.  Made on a low budget and shot entirely on the street and in urban locations, the film proved to be a box-office sensation and had over two million admissions in France alone. Not only that, it made the New Wave an international brand and catapulted Godard and others associated with the film’s production, such as Raoul Coutard and Jean-Paul Belmondo, to worldwide stardom.

In fact much of Breathless’s fame today is tied up with its New Wave origins, a major current of which came from a clique of ambitious young critics writing for the anti-establishment film commentary magazine, Cahiers du Cinema [1,2].  These critics dismissed mainstream French studio films of the day and championed, instead, film noir, a term they gave to moody B-Grade American crime films of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, which they felt had more panache and psychological authenticity.  This group – which included Godard, Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Rivette – then went about putting their critical theories into practice by making their own independent and “rebellious” feature films.  (Other young French filmmakers of that period who were not part of the Cahiers du Cinema clique but who came to be associated with the New Wave included Alain Resnais, Louis Malle, Jean-Pierre Melville, Agnes Varda, and Jacques Demy.)

Of all those Cahiers du Cinema critics, Godard was probably the most argumentative and uncompromising, so it is perhaps not surprising that his film stood out and was even more distinctive than those of his colleagues.  Thus Breathless is often seen today as a historical landmark that affected the course of cinematic expression.  Nevertheless, the film is not just of historical interest, in the fashion, say, of The Birth of a Nation (1915), but still has an electric vitality when viewed today [1].

Although the New Wave critics were avowed auteurists, I believe that the success of Breathless is not solely due to Godard’s undoubted abilities. There was a fortunate concurrence of disparate talents that helped make the film the masterpiece that it is [3,4,5].  For one thing, there were contributions from his Cahiers du Cinema colleagues.  Claude Chabrol, who had already had success with two features, served as a technical advisor for the film.  In addition the original story and treatment came from Francois Truffaut, who was then a good friend of Godard’s and was fresh off the success of his own debut film, The 400 Blows (1959).  Truffaut’s scheme told the noirish story of a young criminal’s desperate efforts to avoid police pursuing him and gather up his girlfriend in Paris so that the two of them can make a getaway to Rome.  This treatment provided Godard with a basic narrative structure for the film – which was not the kind of thing, it seems, that naturally emerged from his own inspiration and was not so apparent in his subsequent films.

Also and crucial to the film’s dramatic impact on audiences was its gaudy cinematography.  The first thing that stands out is the proliferation of jump cuts – jolting cuts without changing the frame – that would normally be regarded as film-editing faults in other contexts.  Here, however, the jump cuts work to positive effect, and help give the film a sense of a hectic, out-of-control haste that is constantly jumping the story forward.  This is presumably what is alluded to by the film’s French title, “A Bout de Souffle”, which literally in English means: “Out of Breath” and which would probably have been a better English title for the film.

Further accentuating the nervousness created by the jump-cuts were opposing moments of slowed-down pace due to long-duration tracking shots of conversations mostly between the  two main characters.  These slow-moving passages in the middle of hectic circumstances with the clock ticking made for a maddening stop-and-go tempo that makes the viewer even more mindful of the criminal’s dire situation.

Now you might say that this back-and-forth temporal movement between skittishness and languor represented a brilliant piece of mise en scene on Godard’s part; but I wonder if perhaps this ingenious effect was actually an accident of Godard’s somewhat ad hoc production circumstances. Although Godard was writing the script each day as the film was being shot, the shooting was carefully planned and all the dialogue was pre-specified and not extemporaneously created.  In fact the film was shot without sound, and all the pre-specified dialogue was dubbed in later.  Godard was fortunate to have hooked up with the resourceful young cinematographer, Raoul Coutard, who came up with practical ways to photograph Godard’s scenes in crowded locations.  Now while it is known that Coutard made innovative use of hand-held photography (not common in those days with the relatively heavy equipment in use), this does not mean that Godard and Coutard were winging it as they proceeded filming the script.  In fact the moving camera shots appear to have been carefully planned, with some of them lasting as long as three minutes.  These moving camera shots appear when the two main characters are engaged in key conversations.

However, during the final editing stages of the film, as Roger Ebert has pointed out, Godard discovered that the film was 30 minutes too long and needed to be shortened [6].  Godard couldn’t go ahead and cut up the lengthy moving-camera shots – they needed to be retained intact.  And he didn’t want to remove the dialogue that he had written.  So he was left with cutting a lot of the film’s transitions, creating all those jump cuts.  If Ebert is correct, then we are led to believe that the film’s nervous back-and-forth tempo was something of an accidental creation.

However, we shouldn’t let Breathless’s innovative cinematography, whether accidental or planned, dominate our perspective on the film.  The really fascinating thing about this work  is not so much the cinematography but more the edgy and winding romantic relationship of the two main characters.

Breathless was not the first film depicting the always fascinating situation of a romantic young couple on the run from the law, but it may have been the most inspired.  Its predecessors in this camp include Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night (1948) and Joseph H. Lewis’s Gun Crazy (1950).  And we can see strong traces of Breathless in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1966), Terrence Mallick’s Badlands (1973), Steven Spielberg’s The Sugarland Express (1974), and Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us [7].  In all these films there is a sense of fatalism and romantic desperation.  One of the two romantic characters in these narratives is totally reckless, with the partner helplessly following along and unable to prevent their ultimate destruction. 

In Breathless the romantic couple is played by Jean-Paul Belmondo (in the role of Michel Poiccard) and Jean Seberg (as Patricia Franchini), and the personae of these two actors very much dominates the film’s presentation.  Belmondo was 26 years old at the time, and his expressive face and sinewy physique gave a kinetic and emotional image to his character.  Seberg was only 21, but already a Hollywood star.  Her cool beauty and impenetrable innocence provided the perfect foil for Belmondo’s romantic shadow boxing.  One of the film’s strong points is the way Godard visually dwells at length and in repeated closeups on Seberg’s paradoxical allure.

In fact it is worth discussing their two characters a little further.

  • Michel Poiccard
    He is perpetually rehearsing small narratives that he imagines to be glamorous decorations to his character.  In this connection he likes to mug and make outlandishly emotional facial expressions, in the fashion of how a teenager might make faces while looking at his or her image in the mirror.  As part of his attempts at self-glorification, he admires film noir and the screen personality of Humphrey Bogart, as well as gaudy, gas-guzzling American sedans.  His daredevil self image leads him to hot-wire and steal cars whenever he needs some transportation.  This recklessness makes him attractive to girls but is also fatally self-destructive.  Despite his adolescent and self-indulgent behaviour, though, Michel has the capacity to feel love and jealousy.  His braggadocio posturing is a cover for his personal insecurity, and he cannot help revealing his emotional vulnerability. 
  • Patricia Franchini
    As played by Jean Seberg, who was born and grew up in Iowa, Patricia is very much a US Midwestern girl – in fact Seberg’s Midwestern accent calls attention to her distinctively non-European character.  By this I mean that Patricia is friendly and easy to approach, but difficult to know well.  Emotionally, she remains aloof even while she engages in friendly interactions.  She is looking for someone to capture her, to conquer her, and until then she is just along for the ride and can detach herself from a relationship at a moment’s notice.  In fact at one point she tells Michel,
        “I stayed with you to see if I was in love with you. . . .
        and since I’m being cruel to you, it proves I’m not in love with you.”   
The story of Breathless proceeds through three main stages.
1.  Michel Comes to Paris
In the first sequence the viewer is introduced to Michel Poiccard, a low-level hoodlum in Marseilles who hot-wires a parked Oldsmobile and heads north.  On the way driving while toying with his pistol, he talks to himself about his plans to head for Paris and pick up some money owed to him by someone, and then convince a girl, Patricia, to run away with him to Rome.  Along the way some highway cops start chasing him for speeding, and Michel shoots and kills one of them when he is approached.  This is all told visually with jump-cuts and at breakneck speed.

Upon arriving in Paris, Michel first steals some money from a casual girlfriend.  Then he tracks down Patricia, who is hawking the International Herald Tribune along the Champs Elysees, and as they talk, the pace dramatically slows down.  There is a long 3:20 tracking shot of the two of them talking, as Michel tries to convince Patricia to run away to Italy with him.  It seems that they had recently had a brief affair in Nice and slept together for a few nights.  Patricia clearly finds Michel to be cute, but she is noncommital.

Things speed up again as Michel attends to the matter of picking up some money owed to him by a person named Berruti.  While moving about the city, he also notices a newspaper headline reporting that the road cop-killer has been identified as Michel Poiccard.

2.  Michel and Patricia Together

Patricia goes back to her hotel room and discovers that Michel had stolen her room key at the front desk and is waiting for her in the room. Now the pace slows down again. This is a 23-minute scene in the small hotel room, which despite the cramped dimensions, features a series of long tracking shots – one of them a 3:20 shot of the two of them talking on the bed.  Most of this scene is small talk, but it importantly reveals the evolving relationship and the disparate personalities of Michel and Patricia.  At one point she mentions that grief is better than nothingness (i.e. death), and he responds by saying that he would choose nothingness: “I want it all or nothing”.  They make love that night, and the next morning attend to their respective obligations – he has to get his owed money, and she needs to conduct an interview for a journal she sometimes works for.

3.  To Get Away
Patricia’s immediate assignment is to attend a press conference held for a trendy novelist, Parvulesco (played by noted film director Jean-Pierre Melville). This interview scene serves as something of an intermezzo in the film and gives Godard the chance to offer up some of his provocative bon mots about the world through the mouth of the novelist. While Patricia offers up some sensible queries, the other interviewers only want to ask the novelist titillating questions about how men and women posture towards each other.  Parvulesco pontificates that  men want only women, and women want only money.  When Patricia asks him what is his greatest ambition, he answers that it is "to become immortal and then die".

Now the pace quickens again. After her interview assignment, Patricia is approached by the police, who inform her that Michel is a wanted murderer.  As with other such dramatic moments in the story, Patricia shows very little emotion upon hearing this. She soon helps Michel elude the cops, and as they drive away in another stolen car, she is surprised to read in the newspaper that the cop murderer Michel is a married man.  When she blithely asks him about this, he responds with equal equanimity,
“She dumped me. . . Or I dumped her, I can’t remember.”
They eventually find Berruti for Michel’s money, but the cops are closing in.  All the way along, Patricia has been agonizing over whether she really loves Michel or not. The closing sequences provide for an answer to that question.

Of the comparable lovers-on-the-lam films, perhaps the closest match to Breathless is Bonnie and Clyde. This is not too surprising, since Bonnie and Clyde's script writers, David Newman and Robert Benton, were fans of Breathless and even approached Godard about directing their script. And we can see definite traces of Michel Poiccard’s (Jean-Paul Belmondo’s) boastful vulnerability in Clyde Barrow’s (Warren Beatty’s) personality in Bonnie and Clyde.  But I think an even closer overall character match might be with the Kit and Holly characters of Badlands.  In that latter film, Holly is closer to Patricia’s personality than Bonnie is.

Many people have been attracted to Breathless’s hip references to American culture and general self-parody. They see the film as Godard’s taking the opportunity to call attention to how media inordinately shapes modern culture and its increasing tendency towards cliche and vicarious disengagement.  In addition to cultural references, there are celebrity cameo appearances. Besides the already-mentioned participation of film director Jean-Pierre Melville, there were several other figures in the cast from general French New Wave circles, including Philippe de Broca, Jacques Rivette, Jean Douchet (a Cahiers du Cinema film critic), and Jean-Luc Godard, himself, who briefly appears as a pedestrian that fingers Michel to the police.

All of this puckish cultural referencing was presumably part of Godard’s evolving and not entirely clear criticism of cinematic narrative, itself.  When Godard was asked at the time of this film’s production how he felt about cinema, he replied [1],
"I have contempt for it [the cinema]. It is nothing. It does not exist. Thus I love it. I love it yet at the same time I have contempt for it."
Godard was vigorously opposed to the traditional conventions of studio-based narrative films.  Over the following few years Godard made a succession of films that displayed a progressive retreat from cinematic narrative and looked more like cinematic essays concerning a theme, an aesthetic evolution that he explicitly embraced in an interview during that period [4].  In fact after the 1968 political events in France, his movement from dramatic narrative to visual political tracts became even more pronounced.

However, this evident retreat from narrative (in general) may been an effect of a more specific, but deeper, underlying cause: the fact that Godard was clearly a frustrated romantic.  In most of Godard’s movies, starting already with Breathless, there is a depiction of the romantic narrative being crushed by an unfeeling world ruled by capricious, uncontrollable forces.  Of course some cynical hedonists might well be perfectly happy with that state of affairs.  Why subject yourself to the fantasy-laden constraints of selfless love?, they might ask  – just seize whatever pleasures may be at hand.  But Godard is not one of these types.  He is clearly frustrated, and he forcefully expresses his frustration, it seems to me, over the fact that the romantic narrative is ultimately false – it is only short-lived and inevitably doomed to fail.  He tells us this over and over in his films.

In this regard of romantic narrative, it is interesting to compare Godard with filmmaker Wong Kar Wai, who also depicted the sadness of failed, unattained romance. Wong, the Master of the Broken Heart, often presented impassioned yearning for romantic fulfilment and the pain that comes from unrequited love. But Wong clearly believes in love, indeed he celebrates it with his visual poetics. He simply shows the inconsolable anguish the comes from the beloved’s being unattainable.  Godard, on the other hand and unlike Wong, had lost his belief in the possibility of love, and he expressed his unhappiness about it.  He did this best in Breathless.

  1. John Powers, Breathless, The Criterion Collection, (8 July 1992).
  2. Phillip French, Breathless Continues to Shock and Surprise 50 Years On, The Guardian, (6 June 2010).
  3. Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), Conversations About Great Films: Breathless, Buffalo Film Seminars, The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY (26 February 2002).
  4. Jean-Luc Godard, “Interview with Jean-Luc Godard”, Cahiers du Cinema 138, (December 1962), reprinted in Godard on Godard, Tom Milne (ed., trans.), The Viking Press, New York, 1972, pp. 171-196.
  5. Dudley Andrew, “Breathless Then and Now”, The Criterion Collection, (28 February 2014).
  6. Roger Ebert, “Breathless”, Roger Ebert.com, (20 July 2003).
  7. Interestingly, most of these directors were relatively youthful when these films were made, and one could argue that these examples represented the respective high points of these directors’ careers.