Almost halfway through Á bout de souffle, in the heart of Paris, an American girl and a French criminal fall in love. Not under the Eiffel tower, nor a flickering lamp on a lonely street corner, nor by the Seine river, painted with the nighttime hues of a Parisian skyline; a little truer to life, and, in its own way, a little more romantic, they fall in love inside the paint-peeled walls of a modest Paris studio apartment.
It’s an extended sequence in Jean Luc-Godard’s immortal French New Wave film Breathless that navigates a lazy morning between lovers Patricia (Jean Seberg) and Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo). Not everything said between them is consequential, as is the reality of pillow talk, but there’s sex, a bit of philosophy, and a hell of a lot of cigarettes. For Michel, a petty car thief on the run for the impulsive murder of a policeman, his seduction of Patricia is not quite without ulterior motive, but, then again, the game of love is rarely squeaky clean.
There are an endless amount of reasons why Á bout de souffle is considered one of the greatest films of all time. It was one of a few films to pioneer and bring international attention to the French New Wave film movement—alongside Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour and Truffaut’s 400 Blows—which essentially saw a host of French film critics and artists decide pick up a movie camera, break all the rules, and change the face of cinema forever. It’s also widely considered to be one of the most potent romance stories on film; it introduced Jean-Paul Belmondo to the world stage via the brash-but-charming chain smoking Michel; it similarly established Jean Sebarg, already well-known in America, as an icon of this groundbreaking new movement; and, like others in the wave, it helped herald in a new brand of cinematic love.
Why do these portraits of romance compel us? They say love is eternal, but the French seemed to understand that the concept of eternity in relation to love is more abstract than its traditional, more literal usage. For Godard’s lovers, for Resnais’ in Hiroshima Mon Amour, for Chris Marker’s in La Jetee, and for countless others, eternity is found inside brief moments, snapshots, silences, conversations, and tired mornings between the sheets, like Patricia and Michel’s apartment romance. Above all, to many of the French auteurs, love is only eternal when bound to the finite.
It’s no coincidence that in his (criminally underrated) American remake of Breathless, Jim McBride chose to make his own version of Michel, played by Richard Gere, a fan of Marvel’s universe-drifting romantic the Silver Surfer, who is doomed to travel the spaceways, lightyears apart from his home-planet Zenn-La and his wife Shalla Bal. The original Breathless is much less direct thematically than its American counterpart, obviously, but Michel’s lone-traveller carries a similar philosophical quandary—does the man who carries no meaning have the right to love?
At one point in A Bout de Souffle, budding Journalist Patricia goes to interview swaggering author Parvulesco (played by another French new wave filmmaker, Jean-Pierre Melville) on a terrace overlooking an airfield, alongside a flock of other journalists. Between them all, they ask the novelist of life, love, men and women. Can one still believe in love in our time? Of course, especially in our time. Was Rilke right to say, “modern life will increasingly separate men and women”? Rilke was a great poet, so he was probably right. Are French women romantically different from American women? French women are totally unlike American women. The American woman dominates the man. The French woman doesn’t dominate him yet. Which is more moral: an unfaithful woman or a man who walks out? [smiles] An unfaithful woman. Are women more sentimental than men? Feelings are a luxury few women indulge in. Is there a difference between eroticism and love? No, not really. I don’t think so, because eroticism is a form of love and vice-versa. How many men can a woman love in a lifetime? [gestures hands] more than that. Two things matter in life. For men it’s women, and for women, money.
Parvulesco’s answers mirror the relationship between Patricia and Michel in many ways, pointing to a love that’s complicated, sometimes contradictory, and an example of how so much of the romance between two souls is the attempt to stay on the same wavelength for as long as possible. It’s a balancing act. As he wrote the script, Godard told Francois Truffaut that the story would involve “a boy who thinks of death and a girl who doesn’t.”
What’s your greatest ambition in life? To become immortal, and die.
Some argue that Patricia never fell in love with Michel at all, not in her apartment on that sunny Parisian morning, nor at any point in the film. She says as much herself as they lay in bed together. “I don’t know if I love you yet.” Though what feels striking about Godard’s love is that it feels as momentary as it feels deeply and convincingly romantic. Perhaps love is a dip in the ocean on a scorching day at the beach. Who said eternal should mean forever? In the very same sequence, as they lie in bed together, the American girl tells her French lover, “I want us to be like Romeo and Juliet”. At the end of the movie, she betrays him while they hide out in the apartment of a confidant, leading to his tragic end at the hands of the police. While Parvulesco’s greatest ambition was to become immortal, then die, Michel attains both at once, immortalising his love by way of death. Out of love, out of breath. Eternity…briefly.