Directed by Jean Luc Godard, France 1959, starring: Jean Seberg & Jean-Paul Belmondo

{Film review for the Forest of Dean & Wye Valley Clarion, 2004.}

France 1959.

The year Claude Chabrol’s tender and more emotionally engaging ‘Les Cousins’ won the Golden Bear in Berlin and Truffaut won Best Director at Cannes for ‘Les Quarte Cents Coups’ (‘The 400 Blows’).

Why then was it not these nouvelle vague movies but ‘A Bout De Souffle’ that became the cornerstone of the new wave, cementing itself a deep and notorious place in international film history?

Based on an original treatment by Francois Truffaut but lacking any coherent script, and with Claude Chabrol acting as artistic advisor (plus Jean-Pierre Melville appearing in front of the camera), ‘A Bout De Souffle’ made, as Halliwell’s guide puts it “insolent use of the jump cut” and in doing so tore into the anarchic consciousness of a new, intelligent generation. ‘Breathless’ was a chaotic and rebellious mix of intellect and pulp; an anti-establishment Beat mix of cool jazz and Mozart.

Graduating from just writing about the movies in film magazines, ‘Breathless’ was Godard’s directorial debut and while obviously influenced by the American noir scene, heralded the arrival and opening salvo of the French New Wave. Today the film still stands out as a zig-zagging narrative; an existential meditation of life, love, crime, freedom, tedium and chaos.

Quinlan’s ‘Film Directors’ lists Godard’s politics as “communist but anti-soviet” and indeed after his initial successes, Godard went on to produce a number of left-wing films that despite their genuine commitment to the cause, but which generated little interest in the west. This was partly due to his rebellious reluctance to embrace the regular channels of finance and distribution – the very same thing which, on the whole, has continued to strangle creativity in film to this very day.

Of course, Godard had already upset the establishment by featuring references to the war in Algeria in the 1960 film ‘Le Petit Soldat’. That film was banned and left unseen for three years after production had ended. Later he worked in the Lebanon filming ‘Jusque a la Victorie (Until Victory)’ with the PLO, but again, through lack of funds, the film went unfinished.

The Parisian Maoist underground in which Godard had become involved saw him make low-budget films that dealt almost entirely on class and struggle: dialectical materialism – one example of which featured conversations between workers and students. But this was the 60’s of the Spring 68 revolution and Che.

Indeed, it was in ‘68 that Godard co-founded the Dziga Vertov Group, a collective making radical “political films politically”. The films never made it out of activist circles, but one can’t help but wonder what Godard might think of commercially successful political films like ‘Farenheit 9/11’ or ‘Super Size Me’.

Separately, the anti-heroine of ‘A Bout de Souffle’, the tragic American actress Jean Seberg, would find her own way to the struggle: through her support of the Black Panther Party. Having already been hand-picked by Otto Preminger to play Joan of Arc, Seberg was a rising star on both sides of the Atlantic.

Seven months pregnant by her white intellectual husband Romain Gary, Seberg was targeted in an FBI smear campaign using fictitious letters suggesting her child was from an illicit affair with a Black Panther Party member. The trauma led to a premature birth and the child died. Shocking the world’s media she presented the dead baby at a press conference, proving the child was white in act of righteously outrageous rage against the smear campaign. The FBI, however, continued to track and follow Seberg, and eventually she took her own life in 1979.

Eventually Godard returned to the relative mainstream of world cinema and while remaining an original artistic force, he never reached the impact and quality of ‘Alphaville’ or ‘A Bout de Souffle’.

Meanwhile in Hollywood, 1959, ‘Ben Hur’ cleaned up at the Oscars.

Currently available on DVD.
 Want more Godard?: we recommend ‘Weekend’ and ‘Alphaville’
 If you like this, then you might like Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Stranger Than Paradise’.
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