The Problem of Genre classification in A Bout de Souffle (Godard, 1959)

A Bout de Souffle (1959) was Godard’s first feature length film and is recognised as being the first film in the emerging movement of the French New Wave. It was an innovative and intellectual movement, which took a strong interest in the emerging youth class, motivated by the celebrated youth of the USA. It is in keeping with contemporary French culture of the USA invading the French market post-war and has become an iconic product of the French New Wave era, breaking the codes and conventions of modern cinematic practices. A Bout de Souffle moved in line with the emerging auteur Hollywood cinema, which forcefully challenged the tradition de qualité. The Auteur style is an important aspect within this film due to the consistent traits that are found in Godard’s work. These include the manipulation of sound, genre and continuity.

The most important aspect of film noir films is visual style, which typically ‘emphasises the impression of night-time photography with high contrast lighting, occasional low-key lighting, deep shadows and oblique angles to create a sense of dread and anxiety’[1]. It is based upon binary oppositions, for example good versus evil and dark versus light. These oppositions seem to be strongly reflected in the lighting and the use of black and white. This provides a pessimistic and brooding atmosphere, reflecting the sadistic side of human nature, reminiscent of German Expressionism.

The visual style of A Bout de Souffle does not help to establish the film as film noir. It is shot in black and white, but uses naturalistic lighting, which creates a sense of immediacy. The lighting occurs naturally within the diegesis, suggesting a representation of reality, which conforms to the Documentary genre. Furthermore, this method of lighting does not produce a contrastive, chiaroscuro style and rules out the creation of the conventional deep shadows. Usually, the majority of the film noir and crime genre narratives take place at night, which is also an important factor in the generation of the mood and atmosphere of the film. These night-for-night sequences are replaced by day sequences, with the majority of the narrative action taking place during the day. This subverts the audience’s expectations of the generic conventions, removing the anxieties from the mise-en-scène, placing them into the character’s personality, as a means of framing the chaotic and dynamic action of life in the city.

The majority of A Bout de Souffle is shot on location in the urban setting of Paris. This use of on location shooting is a trademark of French New Wave films, which refused the constraints of the studio. It conforms to the film noir movement by committing the characters to spaces of modernity. In film noir, ‘the setting is city-bound and generally a composite of rain-washed streets and interiors (both dimly lit)[2], which is used to portray a dangerous and corrupt atmosphere. This atmosphere is not created in A Bout de Souffe, as the urban setting is not shot in a fictional manner. The city is shot objectively and is observed by the camera, for example, there are shots of famous historic monuments, such as the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe, placed within the film. This seems to again conform to the Documentary genre, rather than the film noir or Crime genre.

The French New Wave broke and interrogated the codes and conventions of modern cinematic practices and challenged the dominant film practice. The new technology of the lightweight camera allowed on-location shooting and promoted both experimentation and improvisation. This also helped to recreate the sense of reality, typical to documentary films, for example the use of the tracking shot, which follows Michel and Patricia as they pace up and down the Champs-Elysées. The characters are shot from behind, rather than the conventional shot-reverse-shot, which challenges the viewer’s expectations. Godard also uses disjointed shots, for example shifts in location and rapid shifts from close-up shots to long shots, which disorientates the viewer. This disorientation conforms to the film noir movement, but uses different techniques such as Dutch angles and low angles to achieve it.

The film utilises jump-cuts, challenging the conventional editing and narrative style of Hollywood cinema. The montage of disjointed shots distances and disorientates the viewer, since between jump cuts; there is an ellipsis in time and place. It challenges the naturalisation, fragments the image and creates an uneasy sense of narrative progression. The jump cut involves the removal of whole parts of sequences, providing a sense of discontinuity and discordance. Therefore, Godard rejects the codes and conventions of genre and attempts to challenge genre as ‘a means of preventing a text from dissolving into ‘individualism and incomprehensibility[3]. By experimenting with film practice, Godard attempts to add his own signature to the narrative, creating a sense of modernity. In addition, the editing highlights the romantic exchange between the two characters.

Film noir films tend to use narrational devices, such as flash backs, flash forwards and voiceover narration in order to convey the complex narratives. In A Bout de Souffle, as Michel is travelling to Paris, he describes the narrative in short by addressing the camera, rather than using voiceover. This shatters the illusion and draws attention to the artifice of cinema, breaking the conventions of Hollywood cinema, but conforming to the Documentary genre. It also expresses the vitality of youth, as Michel, even on his own, jokes with the spectator. This technique of distancing the viewer is in juxtaposition to the conventional Hollywood genres, which attempted to draw the spectator in.

Both non-diegetic and diegetic sound can be used in order to establish the genre. The use of non-diegetic jazz music provides a sense of modernity and improvisation. It goes against the classic and conventional music of the film noir genre by being discordant to what is depicted on screen, and by the audience being invaded by the soundtrack. It seems to be broken, inconsistent and interspersed, which does not work in conjunction with the film.

Throughout the film there is a jazz motif, which is used when the narrative is progressing, for example it is played at the dawn of a new day. It is also used as a character theme or signature. For Michel, the motif is more sinister and is played in a minor key. It is used to generate a sense of character, indicating his presence as threatening and to recreate a sense of danger, for example when he draws the gun for the first time in the car. For Patricia, the motif is much lighter, in a major key, and is more romantic. For example, it is used when Michel proposes the idea of them running off together to Rome.

The narrative acts to order the events into a certain way which helps to create meaning for the spectator. According to Todorov’s theory, the narrative begins ‘with equilibrium…an initial situation where everything is balanced…followed by some form of disruption, which is later resolved. With the resolution at the end of the narrative a new equilibrium is usually established’[4]. The equilibrium is usually a state of security for the protagonist. Yet, in A Bout de Souffle, Michel Poiccard steals a car, displaying an act of criminality. This develops a state of anti-equilibrium, which conforms to the crime genre. It challenges modernist cinematic codes via camerawork, editing and narrative, for example at the start; the audience have no idea who Michel is. They are placed into a moment in his life without prior knowledge of his background.

In order to achieve the state of new equilibrium, Michel sets off on a journey to Paris, to acquire the money needed, along with Patricia, to start his new life in Rome. During his journey, the police act as agents of disruption, attempting to arrest Michel, but he is forced to kill a policeman, overcoming the disequilibrium stage. In his quest for this new state, he becomes an alienated and isolated individual on the run from the police, which is typical of film noir and American pulp fiction. Patricia then acts as another agent of disruption when she betrays him, leading to the bleak conclusion of his death, conforming to the film noir movement.                             

In A Bout de Souffle, the characterisation of the two central characters, Michel and Patricia, is important in determining the generic identity of the film. In conventional film noir films, the male protagonist is an anti-hero and a socially alienated individual, who is placed in a situation of social estrangement and disillusionment. They are ambiguous and ‘often mature, almost old and not too handsome. Humphrey Bogart typifies him[5].

At the beginning of the film, A Bout de Souffle, the audience are introduced to the protagonist, Michel Poiccard. He is seen masking his face with a newspaper, which is archetypal crime genre behaviour, suggesting that he is a morally ambiguous character who is distancing himself from society. Michel emulates the figure of the gangster, with the iconic costume of the suit, cigarette and fedora hat. This figure immediately displays to the audience that he is an anti-hero, he is the centre of the audience’s focus, therefore exhibiting him as the protagonist, but he displays antagonistic qualities. He then proceeds to steal a car, whilst using a young woman as a look-out. She embodies Michel’s romanticised desire for the woman to aid the criminal; she embodies the qualities that Patricia lacks. This also shows that despite his appearance as a conventional gangster, he is just a petty thief. He uses this appearance in order to use the woman as a commodity, before discarding her, which is unconventional with film noir and typically associated with the femme fatale.         Conforming to both the Crime and Gangster genre, rather than film noir, Michel Poiccard falls into crime in the pursuit of the ‘American Dream’, the pursuit of wealth, displaying cross-fertilisation. He represents a tale of morality, since his death shows that crime does pay. This shows that both Michel and the emerging youth class are fascinated by, and saturated in, American popular culture. For example, Michel is besotted with the American character Patricia and constantly emulates the lip-rubbing gesture of the archetypal film noir and crime genre star, Humphrey Bogart. Michel further conforms to this genre, since his alias Laszlo Kovacs, shows that he is originally from a poor immigrant family and is aspiring to a greater status and wealth. This proletarian background explains his use of vernacular speech and colloquial expressions. The use of language is casual and informal ‘with a wealth of popular and slang terms and expressions[6]. Typically, the central protagonists in film noir films are middle class, facing a descent in status, where as Michel is working class, marginalised, and attempting to rise, therefore subverting the convention. Moreover, his dialogue is often mumbled, thus not allowing the audience to have a clear response to him, further enhancing his status as the anti-hero, and adding a sense of ambiguity and misunderstanding.

            The central female character, Patricia, is first introduced to the audience selling newspapers along the Champs-Elysées. She is presented wearing a t-shirt and trousers with short blonde hair, which is in juxtaposition to the femme fatales of the film noir movement. Her appearance resembles innocence, since she compares herself to a child in a painting by Jean Renoir, and is addressed by the police as ‘petite fille’. The female body is associated with art and high art credentials. Patricia’s appearance is therefore desexualised and not fetishised, where as stereotypical femme fatales, such as Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1994), Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946) and Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), are sexualised and eroticised. She resists the stereotypical film noir femme fatale, reshaping the American discourse. The use of naturalistic lighting results in the fetishisation not occurring. Instead, she uses her innocence in order to gain male attention, rather than sexuality.

In the vein of the femme fatale, Patricia is independent and active within the narrative, opposing the traditional representation of women as passive in the previous tradition de qualité and classic Hollywood cinema. However, Patricia is a journalist, and is thus earning her money to gain her independence in a law abiding way, where as the femme fatales are only interested ‘in getting enough money, by all means foul, to gain their independence’[7]. Rather than conforming to the film noir femme fatale, she represents the modern woman, who was becoming more prevalent within society in the 1950s.

A Bout de Souffle combines the conventions of the gangster genre and film noir in terms of characterisation, but reworks the conventions of the genres to focus on the relationship between the gangster and his girlfriend, instead of the relationship between different gangsters. There is a strong emphasis on the relationship and the development of the relationship between the two characters, conforming to the Romance genre, with one third of the film taking place in Patricia’s room. This lack of narrative progression highlights the potential romance. Additionally, the dialogue is naturalistic, adding a sense of spontaneity and vitality to their relationship, which is unconventional to film noir.

The characters of Michel and Patricia are played by unknown actors, Belmondo and Seberg. Belmondo represented a new form of stardom, the anti-star, and did not have the same star template as film noir stars, such as Bogart. Instead, Belmondo mimics his gestures and ‘murmurs to the actor’s nickname (Bogie) but retains his own identity[8]. This shows that Michel intends to live his life in a similar manner to a Hollywood character, emulating the film noir star’s actions in the real world. It also emphasises the low budget nature of the New Wave films.

Outside of the space of Patricia’s room, in the conventional film noir setting of the city, the relationship becomes more problematic and develops into a relationship between the femme fatale and the anti-hero. This shows how external factors, embedded within society, affect the way in which the generic elements are used. In the film, the Author, who Patricia interviews, explains a pessimistic outlook, similar to that of film noir, on relationships. He explains that the most important thing for men is women and for women is money. Patricia betrays Michel, by informing the police for both moral and selfish reasons. Her innocent appearance exhibits her as incorruptible, and she only flirts with criminality throughout the film, which does not conform to the femme fatale. Nevertheless, she also betrays him for selfish reasons, aligning herself with the femme fatale, as she wants to retain her independence and her income. The film ends in an inconclusive way, with Patricia being depicted as detached from Michel, ending with no sense of melodrama, which is associated with film noir films such as High Sierra (1941). This detachment from the protagonist enhances her status as the femme fatale, rather than a lover, which had been previously built up in the bedroom sequence.

On the other hand, Michel conforms to the film noir protagonist, since he is ‘hooked on a femme fatale who…is the perpetrator of all his troubles[9]. Although Patricia conforms to and rejects conventions of the femme fatale, her betrayal, symbolised by Michel being shot in the back, leads to his demise. He has over-invested in her; therefore he does not flee but faces his punishment. His tragic demise is typically associated with the anti-hero in film noir.

The iconography and mise-en-scène in this film helps to establish it as both a film noir and crime genre film. The costume of Michel conforms to the conventions of these genres; where as Patricia’s costume rejects the conventions of the femme fatale. Nonetheless, both Patricia and Michel smoke throughout, referencing the smoking culture of France, and attempting to reinforce his masculinity. For Patricia, however, it reinforces the threat of the femme fatale.

The gun is an iconic and important element as a technology of death and destruction. It plays an important role within the narrative, being shown only at the beginning and at the end. The phallic image of the gun reinforces Michel’s masculinity at the beginning, since he murders in cold blood. At the end, he attempts to discard the gun, resulting in a defetishisation, and thus questioning his masculinity due to the threat of the femme fatale. The newspaper is also typical iconography, as it represented an element of real-life and is a material for the consumption of violence.

Due to the film noir movement emerging during an era of political instability, the tone of film noir is fundamentally pessimistic and ‘places its emphasis on a man’s contingency in a world where there are no transcendental values or moral absolutes[10]. Michel embodies the sense of existentialism, which had developed in western culture in the post-war years. He assumes the role of the outsider, who is doomed to failure from the beginning, as his petty crimes begin to spiral out of his control to the serious crime of murder. This lack of control over his fate is further reinforced when he gives the New York Herald back to Patricia because it has no horoscope. He also displays religious tendencies, which are not conventional to film noir. For example, when a man is knocked down by a car, he marks the cross on his chest in order to protect him. This again shows that he does not have control over his fate. Yet, after Patricia’s betrayal, he takes responsibility for his actions by refusing to flee, embodying pessimism, as he is resigned to his fate.

These existential tendencies, which ‘stressed the individual, the experience of free choice….using free will and taking responsibility for all their actions, instead of playing pre-ordained roles dictated by society’[11], are conventional characteristics of the film noir protagonist and of characters of the French New Wave.

A Bout de Souffle subverts the traditional American genres, showing changes in the industry and the modes of production. It used changing attitudes and ideas in society to inform the use of generic conventions. Godard subverts the belief that ‘genres are agents of ideological closure – they limit the meaning-potential of a given text’[12], by creating an example of a hybrid genre, fusing together a wide set of different generic conventions from the film noir, the crime and gangster genre, the romance genre and the documentary genre. It therefore shows that audiences need to experience and recognise the dual demand of familiarity and difference, which in turn appeals to a new and wider audience.

 


[1] Hayward, Susan (2000) Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts, page 129

[2] Hayward, Susan (2000) Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts, page 129

[5] Silver, Alain and Ursini, James (1996) Film Noir Reader: Edition 1, page 22

[6] Marie, Michel (2000) ‘It Really Makes You Sick’ in French Film: Texts and Contexts, Second Edition, Susan Hayward and Ginette Vincendeau, page 166

[7]  Hayward, Susan (2000) Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts, page 130

[8] Marie, Michel (2000) ‘It Really Makes You Sick’ in French Film: Texts and Contexts, Second Edition, Susan Hayward and Ginette Vincendeau, page 168

[9] Hayward, Susan (2000) Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts, page 130

[10] Silver, Alain and Ursini, James (1999) Film Noir Reader: Edition 2, page 77

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One response to “The Problem of Genre classification in A Bout de Souffle (Godard, 1959)

  1. Pingback: La joie d’un film – “A bout de souffle” de Jean-Luc Godard | Simon Brenncke·

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