In part 2/11, we take a look at two more movies that I should probably have demonstrated more context-awareness for…but apparently I was more interested in passing judgment on two of the most influential movies ever.
Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Godard’s Breathless are both films attempting to create particular and recognizable worlds for their characters to inhabit. Both films reject conventional plotting in favor of unconventional stories that use the familiar to provide the audience with a new way of experiencing film. In the case of The 400 Blows, this means a slow-building, almost plot-less narrative that is more memoir than movie, while in the case of Breathless, it means using the language of film to create a story so plot-heavy that it threatens at any moment to collapse on itself. These two films, though released only a year apart, are tonal opposites that nevertheless exemplify many of the traits that would come to define French “new wave” cinema in the coming years.
Responding to The 400 Blows, Godard himself said, “The face of the French cinema has changed” (Milne, p. 146). Godard referred to a new emphasis, exemplified for him by Truffaut’s work in The 400 Blows, on content over camerawork, substance over style. While there is certainly nothing wrong with the cinematography of The 400 Blows (quite the opposite—the contrast in the film is so low that the blacks and whites form an almost infinite palette of grays, creating a picture so lush that one might forget the film isn’t in color), there is no question that Truffaut’s central concern is with Antoine and his story. Remarkably, Truffaut manages to create a strikingly autobiographical film (we learn from Annette Insdorf’s essay ‘Close to Home’, included in the Criterion edition of The 400 Blows, that Truffaut, like Antoine, was sent to live with his grandmother and a wet nurse as a child, ran away from home at age eleven, and was turned in to the police by his surrogate father after a string of lying and petty theft) while never becoming so self-obsessed that he alienates the audience.
Important to this effect is the fact that Truffaut never idolizes his onscreen counterpart. He is not afraid to portray Antoine as thoughtless, selfish, and, at times, flat-out stupid. By telling his own story, devoid of vanity, Truffaut is able to invite the audience to draw parallels between Antoine’s life and their own childhoods; and by rejecting conventional storylines in favor of a collection of incidents that, when taken together, form the story of a life, Truffaut invites the audience in even further. Viewers who might be left cold by storytelling dominated by plot can certainly find something recognizable in Antoine’s world of cruel teachers, detached parents, and loyal friends. The 400 Blows isn’t a documentary, but watching it feels so intimate and so real that one could be forgiven for forgetting that Antoine isn’t, technically, “real.”
Breathless is similarly interested in creating a familiar world for its audience, but it comes at this goal from a very different angle. Breathless is a film that speaks in the language of film. From the moment that Michel looks at a poster of Humphrey Bogart and begins to mimic Bogart’s trademark lip-rub, we know that we are watching a film that is very aware of itself as a film, and that takes place in a self-referential world populated less by people than by characters. Michel spends the entire film attempting to embody the sort of character that he idolizes on the screen, and as he swaggers around the city stealing cars, baiting the law, and wooing a beautiful woman, we become acutely aware of what an unlikely man he is to wear these characteristics.
Tall, painfully skinny, big-nosed and lush-lipped, Michel looks like a child playing at adult action. Indeed, even scenes of deadly seriousness seem like games to him. Upon finding the gun in his stolen car, he immediately pretends to shoot it, making “bang bang” sounds like a child playing with a plastic gun. Even when dying, he runs for such an absurdly long time that it approaches melodrama, and when he finally collapses on the street, he is compelled to whisper last words, yet can only summon the borderline-nonsensical “It’s a real scumbag.”
Yet if Michele is playacting, the characters and events surrounding him seem to embody stereotypes utterly unironically. The policemen who hound Michele seem to have stepped straight off the screen of a hard-boiled noir thriller, and Michele’s own gunning-down in the street is so dark that it stands out in stark contrast to the loose tone of the film, making the sequence seem not like the intrusion of reality, but like a sequence borrowed from a much more serious-minded and less lighthearted film. At times, it seems as though Breathless as a whole might be told from Michele’s perspective, through his eyes, reframing the events of his real life as lining up with his filmic aspirations. Any scene that doesn’t feature Michele is his own imagination of what’s occurring, from the melodramatic interrogation of Patricia by the police, or the highly sexualized encounters Patricia has with other men.
Godard’s use of the camera is an essential element in constantly reminding the audience that they are watching a film. If one can forget, watching The 400 Blows, that the events are film, Breathless never lets the audience forget for a single scene that this is a movie. The film constantly cuts in the most abrupt possible way, giving the impression of Michele jumping around a room or a car teleporting across Paris instead of driving. These cuts serve little purpose in the narrative, and end up merely disconcerting the audience, waking us up just as we are lulled into the hypnosis that film so often achieves. Meanwhile, the final shot is steeped in self-consciousness as Patricia turns to the camera and stares directly into the lens, making unbroken eye contact with the viewer as she slowly runs her fingers across her lips, reminding the viewer that he or she is watching not just a film, but a film about film. “Here we are”, she seems to say, “but Bogart was here first.”