Monday, December 6, 2010


“She dumped me or I dumped her, I don’t remember,” Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo), the feckless gangster in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless—currently in revival at Film Forum—tells his moll Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg), a would-be journalist who hawks the International Herald Tribune on Parisian Boulevards, when she asks about his former wife. The cadence evokes the famous first lines of Albert Camus The Stranger (L’Etranger, 1942), “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas.” The syntactic similarity is not coincidental. From the moment that Michel picks up his gun and shoots a policeman, with the film’s haunting jazz theme in the background, the similarity to Meursault’s senseless murder of an Arab  is established. The only difference is that the desolation of North Africa is replaced by the dusty streets of the American westerns to which both the filmmaker and his two protagonists are attracted. Breathless is one example of translation failing to convey the poetry and meaning of the original language. A bout de souffle is the French title of the film, and it means literally at the end of breath. There are some wonderful exchanges, both of language and telephone numbers, in the film. Danton 0100 is the police. Élysées 8984 is one that Michel is always trying to get, and there is a Belle Épine number. But the final exchange of the film, when Michel is literally breathing his last breath, underlines the poetry of Godard’s title. Michel is dying, still mugging in his death, having made the choice of nothingness over grief in an earlier scene that foreshadows his demise and hearkens to Camus’s themes. Michel says, “Makes me want to puke,” and when Patricia asks what it means, the police detective who has been chasing Michel translates it as, “You make him want to puke.” The expression on Jean Seberg’s face is one of the most unforgettable in the history of cinema, ranking with the horrified open mouth on the nurse in the famous Odessa steps sequence of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) .

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