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Going down into the street: An analysis of the space of the street in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (À bout de souffle )

23 Dec

Breathless is inescapably tied to the real city. Godard uses this real life setting to validate the film’s fictional narrative and to critique both the old established order, and the new. By taking ownership of the city through the street, auteurs such as Godard found a space within the city to work creatively and to comment on the world around in an original and revolutionary fashion. In Breathless the street is the focus of urban experience. It becomes the antithesis of the world of the studio. The street exists as public thoroughfare and is a relatively unregulated and uncontrolled negative space within the city fabric. Filming here becomes a reaction against controlled sets, conditions and locations, professionalism and rehearsal. As Éric Rohmer, Godard’s friend and peer said, “the New Wave was born from the desire to show Paris, to go down into the street, as a time when French cinema was a cinema of studios”(1981). The film’s narrative and its depiction of the city are of course not solely set in the streets of Paris, but this essay will focus on this aspect.



Paris was Godard’s home since birth and his personal association with the city is clearly evident in the way the city is navigated and shot. He wrote that in conceiving a film he had to “start with the location” (Penz, 2007, p.144) The location becomes the foundations upon which the film is built and the city is its inspiration and setting. The nouvelle vague encouraged the reclaimation of the city by a generation of young auteurs and Breathless reconnects the city with the Lumière Brothers’ early films which captured the public gaze and recorded everyday events of life in France at the end of the nineteenth century. Godard’s use of this documentary technique of the city watching itself – curious glances, threatened stares, embarrassed smiles – seems to be a call to the audience for self-examination as well as an homage to the city and the origins of cinema. It signals a reconnection with the notion of cinema as a fundamentally social art and is the most apparent reminder that the film has been shot in the city “as is.”


Breathless‘s main protagonist, Michel, is first encountered in the street. He steals a car in Marseilles, tears towards Paris and somewhere along the way ends up shooting a policeman dead. Right from his introduction he is a criminal – the almost trivial murder hinting at this Bogart wannabe’s desire to emulate the fictional Hollywood gangster – the glorified, celebrated cinematic outsider most at home in the B movies Godard and his peers revered. This murder is witnessed by the audience but faces of killer and victim are not shown (Turner, 1983, p.57). Only a gloved hand firing a handgun is seen, as if a few frames from a Hollywood gangster flick or Western have been directly transplanted into Godard’s film with its almost humorously incongruous and unglamorous rural French setting. This elevation of the lowly B-movie above the staples of the French cinema system sets in motion a chain of events which dismantles temporal and spatial film conventions and Michel’s transgressive actions echo Jean-Luc Godard’s ostentatious desire to challenge the contemporary film world.


Patricia, Michel’s sometime girlfriend, is also introduced wandering the street, selling the Herald Tribune in the immediately recognisable territory of the Champs-Elysées. She is a young American strolling through the heart of the city. She is dislocated and footloose, a post-war flâneur for the modern Paris of the late 50s. She lives in a hotel, is supported by her parents and is a student. Transience dominates – a foreign newspaper with news that will be worthless the next day, cars which are stolen at free will, nondescript hotel rooms and the multiple casual amorous relationships both characters are involved in. At the centre of this landscape of in-between spaces, fleeting relationships and ambiguous moral behaviour is the ultimate transient space of the street. A territory of continuous movement and change – always a route and never a destination. The audience is introduced to both characters in the street, and the film ends in this most public of spaces.


By filming in the street the façades of buildings become key in defining the space the characters inhabit and, as such, are used as internal walls containing the room of the street. Their role is reversed. Not only are cinema conventions such as continuity editing challenged, but so is the use of space. In a city with an urban layout as ordered and formal as in Paris, the adoption of the street as a territory for film-making might be seen as a highly charged political, as well as artistic, move. Haussman’s grands boulevards work by directing views and movement along prescribed axes, connecting imperial monuments and retracing the state-directed demolition of Paris’ old medieval roots and improvised, organic layout. They direct sight-lines and control space in a manner which creates a scenographic character aligned with conventional French cinema – film conventions adopted from the world of conventional western theatre. These monumental avenues of Haussmanian Paris are subversively challenged through Godard’s editing. They are dismantled and reassembled to fit the pace of the motorcar and Michel’s spontaneous, directionless existence. Long, linear boulevards are traversed in a matter of seconds and grand roundabouts are navigated in the blink of an eye. The architecture and planning of Paris generates a perspectival environment – one which emphasises distance and encourages an extension towards progress, the horizon, the infinite – a way of seeing the city this generation of new auteurs rejected.

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Breathless is a film about outsiders – outsiders who occupy outsider space. Ultimately the Paris portrayed in Breathless is a city of streets as opposed to one of buildings. The auteur refuses to play by the rules. It eschews moralising in favour of representation – a new representation – of what film might be, both stylistically and theoretically. Breathless is a re-portrayal of Paris, a re-thinking of film making and re-capturing of the role of a cinema of self reflection and social engagement precisely because it emerges from the uncontrolled and undirected streets of the city. As Michel lies dying in the street it is as if he belongs not in Rome or the other cities he plans to escape to, but in Paris. As the anti-hero of a film born of its location he perishes in the streets which formed him, permanently connecting his character and the film with the transient space of the street. Conventions are so visibly and audibly broken that Breathless is an essay in challenging the established order, and yet, in revolutionising cinema, Godard returns to its origins, origins he shares as an individual – the streets of Paris.




Mennel, B. (2008) Cities and Cinema.London and New York: Routledge

Moviediva(2004) Breathless (1959) Directed by Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg (89 min.). [Online]. Available from: <http://www.moviediva.com/MD_root/reviewpages/MDBreathless.htm> [Accessed 01 March 2010]

Penz, F. (2007) The City Being Itself: The Case of Paris. In: La Haine, Visualising the City, ed. Marcus & Neumann, London: Routledge

Rohmer, E. (1981) ‘Discussion with Éric Rohmer.’ Cahiers du Cinéma 323-4:29-39, Mai

Turner, D. (1983) Breathless: Mirror Stage of the Nouvelle Vague. In: SubStance, Vol. 12, No. 4, Issue 41 pp. 50-63