A while back I watched the 1960 French film Breathless because French New Wave is thing that I know of through late night graduate student conversations in a bar. The type of conversation where you nod and keep your mouth shut in hopes that your friends won’t realize you have no clue what they’re talking about. Also, it wasn’t behind the Hulu pay wall that week. I’ll admit that I feel a bit presumptuous talking about a film that looms so large in cinema (after all my only real film credentials are that I can tell you which deaths in Friday the 13th were inspired by A Bay of Blood) but I’ve referred to War and Peace as Cluster F***: A Victory in the past, so screw it.
What struck me as I watched Breathless was how much I hated the protagonist, Michel. Throughout the film he tries to present himself as the cool film-noir anti-hero—made clear by an early scene of him staring at a poster of Humphrey Bogart—but it quickly becomes clear that he’s just playing pretend. He steals a car, finds a gun in glove compartment, and, like any child who’s found a gun, starts pointing it and pretending to shoot things. The whole stolen car and stolen gun leads to him shooting a police officer for real. We then follow Michel to Paris where we watch him break into a woman’s house, say “just like woman” when he can’t find any money, visit another woman, ask her for money, reject her offer of a lesser amount which he then steals when she’s not looking. Michel isn’t evil; he’s just a dick.
However, it was unclear to me whether the director, Jean-Luc Godard, wanted us to like Michel or not. If the director was pointing out the petty selfish reality of the characters that are romanticized in film-noir, then high-five I understood the film. However, if we were meant to sympathize with this character in midst of existential crisis and excuse his dickish behavior because ennui is hard, then I understood the film but am rather frustrated with it.
The character that really interested me, though often annoyed me, was Patricia. Throughout the film Michel pursues her, and she is the one who turns him into the cops, which results in his death. Many people see her actions as a betrayal, but I saw it as an escape. Michel tracks her down while she is working—selling newspapers—and starts pestering her in hopes of resuming their affair. Michel asks her to come to Italy with him, and she says no. He asks her to spend the night with him. She says no. He later breaks into her house when she’s not there. At this point in the film, I was not viewing him as a love interest but as a dangerous predator. When she returns home, he’s in her bed in his underwear. At this point in the film, I want her to call the police. However, she acts nonchalant about the whole thing. He asks her to come to Italy with him again, asks her for sex, and talks about how she’s frightened of him. She tries to talk about her new poster and literature. It becomes obvious that while Michel wants her, he doesn’t particularly care about what she thinks or about her own passions. Throughout the scene, I keep yelling at my TV “call the cops!” She did not listen to me. When she confesses she’s pregnant with his child, he says something along the lines of “you should have been more careful,” which clarifies two things: he is indeed an asshole and one of the reasons that she’s been putting up with this BS is that she’s trying to figure out what to do. Unlike Michel, Patricia has ambition. She wants to be a writer and was working towards that goal: she had been given her first newspaper assignment. She is an aspiring artist, and it is Michel who stands in her way. However, even when she turns Michel in, she warns him and gives him enough time to make his escape, which he doesn’t utilize.
After watching the film, I realized that it told the story of an artist and a muse, but the genders were switched from our traditional view of that story. Patricia wants to be a writer. She talks about books, she’s starting to work as reporter, and she tells Michel that she’s going to write about him in her book. Michel is her muse, and there is nothing worse than being a muse.
If you look at famous artists and the people who are described as their muses, you’ll find that being a muse sucks. Dante Gabriel Rossetti had a friend dig up his wife Elizabeth Siddal to retrieve some poems he buried with her. F. Scott Fitzgerald used extracts from Zelda Sayre’s diary without her permission. Muses can expect artists to expose their secrets in an unflattering manner, to cheat on them, and to leave them. It is an exploitative relationship by its very nature, but as a culture we praise the artist and ignore the muse. One of the most read books in United States is On the Road by Jack Kerouac, but I doubt most people who read it know who Neal Cassady is.
By being a writer, an artist, Patricia has a certain power that Michel doesn’t. She make sense of her existential angst. She can use it to create something new. However, Michel can’t. He can ape the behavior of the characters he sees in films, but all he is doing is playing pretend. He can pursue his selfish pleasures, but all he does is consume. However, Patricia’s gender also makes her vulnerable. People dismiss her as pretty girl, and it is clear that Michel doesn’t even think of her as person. The pregnancy could be disastrous for her and getting abortion was illegal and dangerous at this time.
Her character is drawn to Michel not because she loves him but because he interests her. She’s mining this problematic relationship for material. If she were to give up those aspiration to run away with him to Italy, he would no longer be as attractive to her. There may be further economic angle to explore here: she states that she is being supported by her parents, so she has that bit of privilege. Michel, for his part, would probably abandon her in Italy as soon as he got bored. She stays long enough sate her curiosity and then takes the steps to insure her independence. Her behavior may be exploitative but so is his.
I suspect my reading of the film is not the one that Goddard intended. This film is one where many people seem to see the protagonist as cool and see his behavior as a rejection of some status quo. However, I cannot romanticize anyone in it. The protagonist who is bored with society is a selfish kid aping the characters he sees in the movies. The woman he wants has life that doesn’t revolve around him, but he fails to acknowledge that. The artist uses the muse, then gets rid of him. Everyone is pretty awful, all things considered.