“Landscapes, faces, and objects ask only for their
own beauty, unadorned, free of pathos,
like the world seen for the first time.”

– Nestor Almendros

The well-worn adage of hindsight being 20/20 helps make clear why, if it is not easy it is certainly natural, looking back on a film or a filming project, to see and show how original, how significant, how historically critical were certain moments now vividly recalled that, in the event of it, merely happened. This is true of filmmakers looking back over their work through the reveries of time, but in À bout de souffle (Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard, 1962) it is a frame of mind directly invoked. Belmondo and Seberg are strolling the Champs, her asking him what “horoscope” is and he answers matter-of-factly (their voices recorded on the spot but overdubbed afterward), “Horoscope is the future. I don’t want a future.” Doesn’t want the future, but also cannot have the past. It’s all this, here, now. We have no trouble finding supreme appraisals of, as now thought, spectacular formations; appraisals and even panegyrics after the fact. Yet also, words are quite elusive when we try to speak of the fact itself.

Godard, for example, makes an exhilarated assertion to Cahiers du cinema for their “Nouvelle Vague” special issue of December, 1962: “À bout de souffle was a kind of film where everything was permitted; that was in its nature.” This is a way of pointing backward, and not without facility, to real conditions of production that are difficult to elaborate in retrospect and would likely have sped by far too quickly to be pinioned and labelled at the time: curiosity on the breath, ingenuity without felt limit, economic concern in a complex matrix of troubles, sensitivity to both persons and performances, and, as it could well have felt, unbounded desire. Others describe their sense that Belmondo and Godard shared mutual trust, but of course we can never know about other people’s intimate senses of one another. As to leaping into the magnetism of a problem and finding workable tricks, something the memory miners love to chisel out of the rockface of history, take as a critical case the jump cut.

The film has a lot of jump-cutting, it has affected all of cinema afterward, yet nobody really knows what the sparking impulse was (Melville’s conviction about a remedy for bad continuity notwithstanding), or where precisely it originated, while, in the cutting room long after the shooting (when, said Raoul Coutard, nobody ever thought of this), either Godard or one of the two editors just came up with it. To look at it, to sense the electricity – well, that was natural vision. But for someone to actually stretch out the hand to the guillotine and boldly do it – that was a shot in the dark, faithful and, I would say, entirely optimistic given that for Godard, as Daniel Fairfax understands him, montage “is something that the cinema has never actually attained.”1

Regarding À bout de souffle I find myself interested in a particular quality of the look, the “flavour” photographers know as “available light.” The film was shot with available light. And – I think it is very much worth saying – in this way sets itself apart from so very much of the so-thought revolutionary cinema of the “documentary-style” new wave, in which very conventional key lighting is used to render certain, but only certain, figures important. Here everything is important: or nothing is. With “available light,” equipment is not imported to assist in preparing the subject of vision. No electric connections, batteries, gripstands, reflectors, need for power, team of sophisticated grips, the whole thing. You just find your situation and whatever the light is there, now, already, at this instant, that is the light you use. Think of the shocking innovation of French Impressionism and the origin and roundness of the system will become immediately apparent. To find the thing as it is – what?, the reality?: the place, the people, the shadows, or more importantly, for the roundness of it all, the absence of shadows. Nestor Almendros comments that Coutard had the habit of using lighting that was bounced off the ceiling: bounce lighting produces illumination without shadow; to get this effect filmmaking crews often use white boards angled upon the actors from below; but he, Almendros, went a step further by bouncing light from mirrors.2 In Souffle, Coutard goes even further in a way, or “doesn’t go at all,” since there is just no lighting that isn’t already in the scene (and, of course, being in the scene, paid for by somebody else!). Overcast weather flattens the light, sucks the shadows away.

Money was an object.

Very very small crew (Rohmer writes about using a crew like that himself), so small that in the Hotel Suisse scenes, with a room hardly bigger than a closet, there were only Belmondo, Seberg, Coutard, and his assistant, because around the bed there was only about eight inches in which to move. Tiny crew. No light. No sets. You use as set whatever suitable place you find (that somebody else paid for). You make it work.

And you go with a camera that is portable, small, hand-held. (Godard adored hand-held cameras; was one of the first to spiel like an adman about the Aaton in the 1970s.) The Caméflex moved film, says Coutard, at “approximately 24 fps,” which meant that you could never tell for certain whether recorded sound would sync up. Thus the film had to be overdubbed, all of it, the overdubbing making possible certain transpositions of demeanour and feeling, as when an angry performance (performance of “anger”) could be transmuted afterward by changing the vocalisation. The small camera, in the cinematographer’s hands, meant either that it would move as he moved – according to his athletics – or that some kind of inexpensive and hyperefficient dolly system be arranged: for À bout de souffle a wheelchair manned by Godard, with a crate under the cinematographer’s ass to boost the height. All very improvised, on the spot, you could even say invented if you wanted to be fatuous but in real circumstances where people use what is at hand to make do they are not inventors but only people being alive to the moment. Like when a writer concocts a way to make a sentence that is not a sentence but flows on in the way that film flows on, or in the way that a comment about film stutters on, or something like that. In that way, maybe.

This film made a perturbance in the filmgoing world just as out of perturbations Godard and friends had struck the thing together in the first place. Bring in one’s pal Jean-Pierre Melville, have him sit in his sunglasses and just be himself (under a false name) and just answer questions from eager Patricia: “What do you wish for more than anything else in life?” – “To become immortal. And then die.” Whose voice is that, Melville’s? Godard’s? The story contributor François Truffaut’s? A voice that just found its way into Melville’s gorge at a certain moment, to be sure. The excitement among critics was galvanic. For instance…

The film came out in the four-week period between Wednesday 9 March and Tuesday 5 April, 1960. In that exact period, in the Ville de Paris, and beside À bout de souffle, there were six French releases, twelve American (including Party Girl and Suddenly, Last Summer), five German (among them Ludwig II), four English (among them I’m All Right Jack), two Italian, one Austrian, one Spanish, one Indian (Pather Panchali), and one Mexican (La Cucaracha). The French were La Chatte sort ses griffes (Henri Decoin), Classe tous risques (Claude Sautet), Les Héritiers (Jean Laviron), Plein soleil (René Clément), Tête folle (Robert Vernay), and Melville’s quite fabulous Le Trou (“Films Sortis,” 63-64). But when Cahiers’ reputed “council of ten” saw and evaluated those seven French films, three (one of whom was Melville) voted À bout de souffle “To Be Seen Absolutely,” two “To Be Seen,” one (Fereydoun Hoveyda) “To Be Seen if Pressured,” but an astonishing (unheralded) four, “Masterpiece.” These four were Pierre Marcabru (writing for Combat), Claude Mauriac (journalist son of François Mauriac), Luc Moullet (at the time filmmaker principally of shorts and documentaries), and Jacques Rivette (whose feature career would début with Paris nous appartient [1961]). If one cared about cinema (in Paris!), this one was a must.

Perhaps the single word “astonishment” would suffice to summarise the jitters of reaction around the city at the time, and not long later in the West. That a film could be made with such an atmosphere of casualness and sadness mixed; that the world could look not merely so real but so present; that the camera (that is, the “camera,” the filmmaking mentality) could see both its environment and its protagonists with such vivacious wit and such merciless objectivity.

There was wisdom (and, I believe, might well be wisdom still now) in holding back from diving overboard. In his piece on Godard, Moullet wrote (my translation), “Of all the films made up to this point by those who are newly come to French cinema, À bout de souffle is not the best, since Les quatre cent coups ices the cake; and it is not the most impactful: there is Hiroshima. But it is the most representative”3 If one asks, of what could À bout de souffle be thought (the most) representative, it would seem one could travel in three directions. Certainly, in terms of the personality, psychology, inspiration, and doubt of the filmmaker himself this film is an exquisite representation: Souffle is of Godard, with Godard, like Godard, and in fact Godard. Then we have the thought, invoked by Godard, writes Fairfax, that “history is alone and […] the cinema is one of its best representatives”4; this quite arguably because in a way that exactly mirrors history cinema is always embedded in time. But À bout de souffle is representative in another, for me more poignant way. It shows life in Paris at the time, call it modernity, call it France, call it French cinema. Which means, quite beyond the baguette and the politics of Algeria, and at the same time outside of the young filmmakers’ irritated need to swim in a new wave, representing love of the glittering, ineffable, masterly and mysterious filmmaking of Hollywood, which is to say, America. Love, one should say, even equivocal. Dudley Andrew notes that Godard was “allergic to much of postwar life”.5

The obvious: Belmondo’s Michel Poiccard as a febrile but also innocent mock-up of the Hollywood gangster (say, Paul Muni): the fedora dropped down shadily, but plunking onto the sheets when Michel leans down to kiss Patricia, as if it never mattered in the first place; and flaccid cigarette balanced on the lower lip like an acrobat on a wire; the empty squint from the shining eyes outside the Herald Tribune offices when he sees his name in the newspaper and a man across the street (Jean-Luc Godard) seeing it at the same time; the clumsiness with the gun and shyness with the girl; the way she breaks his shirt in before he puts it on in the morning… Or that American Girl altogether, the one Henry James caught so perfectly in Daisy Miller, who has a lot to say but much to learn – “He had never yet heard a young girl express herself in just this fashion” – charming mostly in not quite grasping what others grasp (but is perhaps not worth grasping – when it comes to the Americans the French are yellow-bellied; “qu’est que c’est ‘yellow-bellied’?”), wanting so much to touch and be touched but also to move and be moved, a real Heisenbergian contradiction come to life. That gun of course, straight out of Joseph Lewis, perfect for frenetic, unconfident, overenunciated shooting, and then, as though in consequence, the world of civilization in which the gun shatters both tranquility and continuity (hence the jump cut). But… at the top of the sacred mountain, emitting its own sacred glow…

The car.

Melville had caught the car, the American car gone Parisian, in Bob le Flambeur (1956), but had not worshipped it. (After becoming immortal he wanted to die, after all.) In Souffle we have something entirely unseen to this point, I would argue unseen even afterward until John Carpenter’s Christine (1983) and Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) (yet in both more fragmentarily): the car as radiant object in itself. Not the car that takes us somewhere, because of course cars will; but the car we would make love to as it stands parked at the curb. There is some (mere) foreplay in Souffle as Michel ogles and briefly toys with a Thunderbird. 

Finally by the car one means, of course, the Cadillac.

And why not the Cadillac convertible, after all. With the top in motion as the car glides on. 

The American obsessive fantasy with the relation between vehicular machinery and design was fruiting thickly in the 1950s. A new dream was being born, then assembly-lined, that would bring postwar civilization to, as Karal Ann Marling notes it, an “exquisite delirium of high adventure”.6 As cinema is its own form of delirium, and as the spontaneous, continually inventive style of Godard was itself delirious, the match was obvious. With all the gorpy grilles and aerodynamic tail fins on the market, Cadillac was the king. Marling quotes a fanatic for Chryslers claiming it has “The Forward Look of Motion—even when it’s stopped!”,7 but Cadillac far surpassed this, sirène of the road. The Cadillac “was the big-car paradigm, the pinnacle of luxury and ‘visible prestige marking’ to which all the others feebly aspired. The boy who bought a Cadillac, or three of ‘em, had made it in terms that respectable American mothers and fathers and their offspring could understand.”8 Even a cursory reading of their respectful paeans to the Hitchcocko-Hawksians would suggest that the eager young filmmakers of the nouvelle vague, so many of whom had been associated as critical voices at Cahiers before making films themselves, felt at some sincere depth their status as “offspring” of “respectable American mothers and fathers,” surely cinematic ones. And if, in the true spirit of Elvis (who owned a very great many of them), the “boy who bought a Cadillac” had made it, how better to show modest, semi-depressive, moony, and utterly charming Michel making it than in a Cadillac: better, a Cadillac he stole instead of buying.

Michel and Patricia enter a parking structure and emerge in a spanking Cadillac—“Cadillac El Dorado!,” he coos – white as morning, top down, a creature that swims the nocturnal streets of Paris like a dolphin. They’re all over town, the Boulevard Montparnasse, Rue du Four, Boulevard Saint-Germain, a pair of frightened strangers cruising through the night toward some ultimate contact. The nocturnal car scenes glow not only for what they reveal by comparison about the other photography in the film: that all of what we see is a visual charm, with splendid burnishing natural light kissing the skin, especially that of Belmondo and Seberg when they kiss and huddle, and there is a hyperreal flat and even quality to the daytime street light, flooding sidewalks, roadways, parked cars, shop fronts, and moving bodies in a shockingly unremarkable way, just as these would be if one were gazing down into the street from the window of a hotel on an average day, a day among all the days, when nothing special was on the calendar beyond the passage of life through time. Or at dusk, when the street lights pop on like diamonds to the far perspective. But here in the Cadillac we are confronted not only with a softened, wholly streamlined movement (in some shots the car is used as the dolly – marrying American car technology with cinema) but a blaze of light, marquee light, street lamps, vitrines, all this against the inky darkness of the surround. So blazing is the light in the so pitch-black darkness one feels the need to defend against it, yet in the same breath one recognises it as the unforgettable emblem of Parisian life. Almost always we are staring at a café, bustling, also casual, also commercial beyond repair, also jazzy. Jazzy light, light the ejaculate of modernity. The white Cadillac: the white light.

And since Parisian, old light. Very old light, as well as hip new light:

Nightfall brings forces very different from those that rule the day. In the symbols and myths of most cultures, night is chaos, the realm of dreams, teeming with ghosts and demons as the oceans teem with fish and sea monsters. The night is feminine, just as the day is masculine, and like everything feminine, it holds both repose and terror… The newer a culture is, the more it fears nightfall.9

Paris is not pre-Biblical but it is surely pre-modern. And modern. Many have said the capital of modernity. David Harvey notes how by night floodlit Sacre Coeur “appears suspended in space, sepulchral and ethereal.”10  The sacred and the demonic float together in the blaze, and inhabit cinema as well – Godard is captivated by cinema, his capture and his tool for capture. Light came onto the streets at least by the mid-fifteenth century to heighten a sense of social order – being in the streets “at nyght without light,” reports Schivelbusch, was to be thought criminal and by 1788 to “submit to the strictest investigation.”11 In 1771 Mercier predicted a future in which street lights would be so bright “their combined impact left no shadows at all.”12 But once light is shining it can be agglomerated and amplified to make advertisement. This night light is not analogous to the broad light of day, it is a magical stuff that brings a power even beyond illumination. Writes Schivelbusch, “The new light mercilessly exposed all the old methods of creating illusions […] instead of a tree one sees the painted canvas.”13 Instead of the city, one sees the pellicule. 

“Space only becomes ‘spatial’ when light (and shade) became ‘active’ in it.”14 And once space is “spatial”, it can become property, thus economic. Not only does Godard choose the Cadillac Eldorado for its gleam, its gloss, its sleekness, its motility, and its extraordinary richness (“The 1957 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham, at $13,074 uninflated [U.S.] bucks, was a mobile seraglio hitched to a dashboard with a built-in tissue box, a vanity case, a lipstick that harmonized with the paint job, and a set of four gold-finished drinking cups”15) he uses it to symbolise the social class that has rigorously excluded Michel and, for different reasons, Patricia – actually his own class, seen now from far outside and through a discerning view. The journey through this Godardian “nighttown” is both an escape and an attempt at escape; both freedom and the brilliant absence of freedom. If the car is all about money, the Cadillac is all about massive fortune, which means the ultimate testament to life and the ultimate harbinger of death. “Perhaps,” writes Mikita Brottman, “it’s no coincidence that Cadillac, the leading manufacturer of speedy convertibles in the 1940s and 1950s, was also the leading manufacturer of hearses.”16 But coupled with the sharp illumination of the night sequence, the ultimate vehicle is also carving a pathway to understanding (that profound Godardian quest). The film is pre-Ballard, to be sure, but already Godard is anticipating him: “The car satisfies one basic human requirement—our need to understand as much as possible of the world around us.”17 

The quest for knowledge, the shock of the new, the thrill of motion, the hope of young love (even not fully requited), the sparkling thrill of the cinematic image – all this is brought into a unity in front of La Pergola, La Coupole, the Brasserie Royale. Partly the effect owes to Coutard’s bravery, since in a companion car he is perched with the Caméflex to his eye in a series of mellow circuits upon a route he cannot see. But he goes beyond mere use of the camera. For this and all the other scenes in the film he wanted to secure an image that would be relatively grain free but at the same time composed according to available light; after all the available of light of Paris, masculine daytime Paris and nocturnal feminine Paris, was the magic charge of the film. The solution was Ilford HPS, a black-and-white negative manufactured for daylight use in still cameras. Normally, Coutard explained,18 one can not use photography film for cinematography because the perforations are all wrong; in the film camera’s intermittent (an internal mechanism that both moves the film forward and opens the shutter, in synchrony) a claw reaches forward, seizes the film through a perforation, and drags it down so that the ensuing frame can be placed behind the aperture. It so happened with the Caméflex, however, that the claw was able to just seize the edge of the perforation and this was sufficient to move the film. So HPS was in. This film came with an ASA of 400, a fairly high rating (for the speed with which light that struck it would be registered chemically in the film’s emulsion) but at least for the night scenes Coutard ordered that the shots should be developed in a paraphenylenediamine bath, and this effectively doubled the ASA. Hence the extremely penetrating clarity of the night shots, and the extent of their focal and contrast range. As Moullet wrote: “Like life, cinematic truth is ambiguous, the opposite of the truth of words.”19

While a great deal has been said and written about Godard – as a philosopher of cinema, as a cinephile, as a critic, as a filmmaker – concentration has centred on his scenes themselves: the character and situation types; the action as it develops; the overall “meaning” or “purpose” of his address. Always penetrating all these, even supplanting them, is the Godardian image, well enough typified, I think, by the nighttime Cadillac journey. The white spaceship, radiating and reflecting, prowling and practical – Michel stops to get a lecture about how outré he is wearing silk socks with tweed – extraterrestrial but also a citoyen itself. Godard’s evident belief is that the image speaks its own truth. That images are ways of thinking, not expressions or encapsulations of verbal thought. Still more: images eclipse thought. In 1988, he looked back to the days of À bout de souffle and his friendship with Truffaut: “In those days magic still existed. A work wasn’t a sign of some thing, it was only the thing itself (and it didn’t need a name and Heidegger in order to be).”20


  1. Daniel Fairfax, “Godard the Hegelian”, in Tom Conley and T. Jefferson Kline (eds.),  A Companion to Jean-Luc Godard (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014), p. 410.
  2. Nestor Almendros, A Man with a Camera (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1984), p. 5.
  3. “Interview with Jean-Luc Godard”, Cahiers du cinema 138 (December 1962), p. 26. Moullet’s French idiom for “ices the cake” reads literally as “caps the pillar.”
  4. Fairfax, “Godard the Hegelian”, p. 408.
  5. Dudley Andrew, “Breathless Then and Now,” Program Book, Criterion Special Edition,  20.
  6. Karal Ann Marling, As Seen on TV: The Visual Culture of Everyday Life in the 1950s (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 1994), p. 137.
  7. Ibid., p. 151.
  8. Ibid., p. 160.
  9. Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Disenchanted Night: The Industrialization of Light in the Nineteenth Century, trans. Angela Davies (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), p. 81.
  10. David Harvey, Paris, Capital of Modernity (London: Routledge, 2006), p. 312.
  11. Schivelbusch, Disenchanted Night, p. 82.
  12. Cited in ibid., p. 133.
  13. Ibid., p. 199.
  14. Carl Friedrich Baumann, cited in Schivelbusch, Disenchanted Night, p. 203.
  15. Marling, As Seen on TV, p. 141.
  16. Mikita Brottman, (ed.), Car Crash Culture (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001), p. xxxi.
  17. J. G. Ballard, predictions about the car in Drive magazine, online at  https://www.jgballard.ca/deep_ends/drive_mag_article.html
  18. In a documentary made with Pierre Rissient, produced by Pretty Pictures and Vauban Productions, in 2007, available on the Criterion Special Edition.
  19. Luc Moullet, “Jean-Luc Godard”, Cahiers du cinema 106 (April 1960), p. 34.
  20. Jean-Luc Godard, “Avant-propos”, in Gilles Jacob and Claude de Givray (eds.),  François Truffaut Correspondance (Rennes: FOMA, 1988), p. 7.

About The Author

Murray Pomerance is an independent scholar living in Toronto.  His most recent books are Virtuoso: Film Performance and the Actor's Magic (Bloomsbury, 2019), A Dream of Hitchcock (SUNY, 2019), and Cinema, If You Please: The Memory of Taste, the Taste of Memory (Edinburgh, 2018).

Related Posts