The late Christopher Hitchens, journalist and author, once spoke about language. “If you can try to keep it short with a few elegant phrases, try to be memorable or at least intelligible, then people may come to find out what you have to say.”
He was speaking of course about the large crowds that attended his speeches about religion, politics and journalism. Hitchens had a natural talent of stringing together sentences which were both memorable and intelligible.
After hearing him say this in an interview, I thought about the many different disciplines to which this could be applied. It applies not only to writing, but to all forms of art. And it wasn’t long before Jean-Luc Godard’s films came to mind.
A bout de Souffle (or Breathless) was Godard’s first feature-length film in 1960. Just as the film’s likeable criminal Michel Poiccard (Jean Paul Belmondo) shot two police officers and went on the run, this film shot down the conventions of cinema and Godard went on to produce a successful run of films throughout his half-century career.
What attracted me to me to Christopher Hitchens’ writing and speeches was the same as what I enjoyed about Jean Luc Godard’s films. It was the short, memorable, intelligible words (and scenes).
Breathless is awash with both brilliant sentences and original scenes.
In one scene, Patricia, a young American journalist played by Jean Seberg, tries to ask Monsieur Parvulesco (Jean Pierre Melville) a question on a rooftop. Finally, between the noisy aeroplanes nearby and the other journalists’ questions, she succeeds in asking hers.
“What is your greatest ambition?” she asks (in French, with an American accent).
Parvulesco removes his sunglasses, looking directly at Patricia.
“To become immortal… and then die.”
Patricia slowly pulls off her shades, taken aback by his answer, marking the profundity of his response. The statement sticks with us long after the scene has given way to another.
Breathless‘ most famous scene comes after nine minutes. Inexplicably, it’s not the shots fired at police officers or even the film’s dramatic ending that viewers most remember. It’s Patricia selling The New York Herald Tribune while walking down a Paris street that is most memorable.
The New York Herald Tribune scene has been reconstructed and referenced in many other films, including Bernardo Bertolucci’s 2003 film The Dreamers. Godard’s brilliance is in making this scene, which on paper sounds forgettable, immortal on the screen.
Breathless was filmed with a handheld camera, and scenes often change abruptly and inelegantly. In a way, Godard has inadvertently mirrored the human memory. Memories do not flow smoothly or even chronologically. They jump from scene to scene hastily; the editing is sketchy. And only the most memorable moments remain.
Anna Karina, who became Godard’s wife until their divorce in (1967) got her first break in Une Femme est Une Femme, the filmmaker’s first journey into the world of colour, illuminated by Karina’s performance.
One unforgettable scene in Une Femme est Une Femme is one in which Karina’s character Angéla and her boyfriend Emile, played by Jean Claude Brialy, begin arguing while getting ready for bed. The fight continues in bed, where the couple agree that they are not speaking to each other. But in true Godard fashion, the scene does not adhere to cinematic or social norms.
Angéla grows restless and gets out of bed, carrying the lamp. She walks over to the bookshelf and scans the books. She then selects a book, walks back to the bed with it and displays the word ‘Monstre’ to her boyfriend by covering the first word with her finger.
When Angela falls asleep, Emile retaliates in the same manner. Writing ‘te faire foutre’ to accompany ‘Eva’ which is already written on the book, (E)va te faire foutre, which translates as ‘go f*ck yourself.’
They both then get up, walk to both bookshelves, and gather books for the silent argument that is about to erupt.
“All women…to the firing squad.”
All women to… Vivre sa Vie! This film, which in Ireland we know as My Life to Live, Anna Karina again plays the lead female role. She plays the daydreaming and unfortunate Nana, who speaks her mind and empties her soul.
In a cafe, Nana and her friend Yvette order wine and light cigarettes. Nana begins to speak and delivers one of the most profound monologues of the New-wave era. It accomplishes exactly what Hitchens advice recommends. Short. Memorable. Intelligible.
“I think we’re always responsible for our actions. We’re free. I raise my hand-I’m responsible. I turn my head to the right- I’m responsible. I’m unhappy- I’m responsible. I smoke a cigarette- I’m responsible. I close my eyes- I’m responsible. I forget that I’m responsible. But I am. I told you escape is a pipe dream.
“After all, everything is beautiful. You only have to take an interest in things to see their beauty. It’s true. After all things are just as they are. A face is a face. Plates are plates. Men are men.
“And life… is life.”
Many of Godard’s films also have a strong political dimension. Film Socialisme was released in 2010. This experimental film received mixed reviews, and the in-your-face title contrasts the quieter promotion of Marxism present in his early works.
In Un Femme est Un Femme, a police officer tells Emile to ‘keep up the good work’, upon seeing him read L’humanité- the daily newspaper of the French Communist Party. La Chinoise, a film about Maoist students in Paris, is more explicitly communistic.
But it’s sometimes Godard’s subtle props and messages which are more effective. In Pierrot le Fou, Ferdinand (Jean Paul Belmondo) decides he is sick of his bourgeois life and he runs away with Anna Karina’s character to the French Riviera. The colour red is prominent throughout, elegantly reminding us of a purer message in the film beyond the drama and chaos.
For me, the films and their story-lines are merely channels through which Godard can steer his messages. The journey is sometimes long, as in Le Week-End or Pierrot le Fou (where the journeys are literally long), but they are always enjoyable. Godard’s originality changed the course of cinema history and the course is ever winding.
It is little wonder that people attended cinemas in great numbers to see Godard’s latest films in the 1960s. They turned out in the following decades too, as his films have not become less enjoyable since the peak of the French new-wave movement. Godard took Christopher Hitchens’ advice fifty years before he uttered the words.
In a few elegant phrases, scattered throughout his films, Godard became memorable. People came to hear and see what he had to say. But he is more than just memorable. He has achieved the most sought after human achievement and his Breathless character’s ambition.
He has become immortal.