Petty thug Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) considers himself a suave bad guy in the manner of Humphrey Bogart, but panics and impulsively kills a policeman while driving a stolen car. On the lam, he turns to his aspiring journalist girlfriend, Patricia (Jean Seberg), hiding out in her Paris apartment while he tries to pull together enough money to get the pair to Italy.
Be careful, Jessica
At the crossroad of kisses
The years pass too quickly
Flee flee flee
You're wrong, Sheriff
Our story's noble as it's tragic
like the grimace of a tyrant
No drama's chance or magic
No detail that's indifferent
Makes our great love pathetic.
Jean-Luc Godard voice-over in the film1
“A decade’s worth of making movies in my head.”
« Je viens de voir A bout de souffle, plus besoin de raccords ! » / “I have just seen A bout de souffle; from now on, continuity shots are out.”
“A bout de souffle was the sort of film where anything goes: that was what it was all about. Anything people did could be integrated in the film. As a matter of fact, this was my starting point. I said to myself: we have already had [Robert] Bresson, we have just had Hiroshima mon amour (Alain Resnais, 1959), a certain kind of cinema has just drawn to a close, maybe ended, so let's add the finishing touch, let's show that anything goes. What I wanted was to take a conventional story and remake, but differently, everything the cinema had done. I also wanted to give the feeling that the techniques of filmmaking had just been discovered or experienced for the first time. The iris-in showed that one could return to the cinema's sources; the dissolve appeared, just once, as though it had just been invented.
I improvise, certainly, but with material which goes a long way back. Over the years you accumulate things and then suddenly you use them in what you're doing. [...] A bout de souffle began this way. I had written the first scene (Jean Seberg on the Champs-Elysées), and for the rest I had a pile of notes for each scene. [...] But improvisation is tiring. I have always told myself: this is the last time, I can't do it again. It is too exhausting going to bed in the evening and wondering, what am I going to do tomorrow? It's like writing an article in a café at twenty to twelve when the deadline is midday. The curious thing is that you always do manage to write it, but working like that for months on end is killing. At the same time it is to a certain extent deliberate. One feels that if one is sincere and honest and one is driven into a corner over doing something, the result will necessarily be sincere and honest.”
“A bout de souffle is a dialogue between two lovers a little lost amid the problems of their time. [...] Jean-Luc Godard can deal with the most serious problems which people have to face without losing his lightness of touch, and frequently finds an answer to them with exceptional elegance and understanding. What is so admirable is that his intellectuals manage to say very serious things so very naturally, without being pompous or boring. No one before Godard has been capable of giving concrete expression to a language which has always seemed very abstract.
Michel and Patricia even more so, are overtaken by the disordered times we live in, the continual moral and physical changes and developments that are uniquely of our era. They are victims of this disorder, and the film is therefore a point of view on disorder, both within and without. [...] We may note that the form of the film wholly reflects the behaviour of its hero, and indeed of the heroine. Better, she justifies this behaviour. [...] Godard's superiority to Truffaut, then, lies in the fact that where Truffaut applies himself to the task of making our own civilization fit a classical framework, Godard – more honestly – seeks a rationale for our age from within itself. [...] This [also] explains the editing style of A bout de souffle, where flash shots are skilfully interwoven with very long takes. Just as the characters' behaviour reflects a series of false moral connections, the film itself is a suite of false connections. Only how beautiful, how delightful these false connections are!
One result of this perpetual to and fro movement is the lure of the mise en scène. Fascinated by their dizzy behaviour, our heroes detach themselves from their own selves and play with these selves to see what effect this will produce. In the last shot, by a supreme irony, as Michel dies he makes one of his favourite comic faces, to which Patricia responds. An ending which is at once optimistic and harrowing - harrowing because comedy intrudes into the heart of tragedy.
Following the American tradition (in the best sense of that phrase) of Whitman, Sandburg, Vidor and even Hawks, he accomplishes art's highest mission: he reconciles man with his own time. [...] The strength and beauty of his mise en scène [...] enables us to discover the profound grace of a world which at first sight seems terrifying; and it does this through a poetry of false connections and of doom.”
- 1A collage from two poems – Louis Aragon's Elsa je t'aime and Guillaume Apollinaire's Cors de chasse (Hunting Horns) – used as a faux, off-screen dialogue from Bud Boetticher's Westbound (1959) that Michel and Patricia go to see.
- 2Jean-Luc Godard in Dudley Andrew, Breathless (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1987), 4.
- 3Veteran director Henri Decoin (Razzia sur la Chnouf, 1955) going to see his editor at Billancourt after having watched A bout de souffle. Denis Zorgniotti & Ulysse Lledo, Une histoire du cinéma français - Tome 4: 1960-1969 (Lille: LettMotif, 2022), 52.
- 4Jean Collet, Michel Delahaye, Jean-André Fieschi, André S. Labarthe & Bertrand Tavernier, “Interview with Jean-Luc Godard,” In Tom Milne (ed., transl.), Godard on Godard (London: Secker & Warburg, 1972), 172-174. Originally published in Cahiers du cinéma 138 (1962), 20-39.
- 5Luc Moullet, “Jean-Luc Godard,” In Jim Hillier (ed.), Cahiers du Cinéma: The 1960s (1960–1968) - New Wave, New Cinema, Reevaluating Hollywood (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986), 35-48, Translated by David Wilson. Originally published in Cahiers du cinéma, 106 (1960), 25-36.
Au biseau des baisers
Les ans passent trop vite
Évite évite évite
Les souvenirs brisés
Vous faites erreur, Shérif,
Notre histoire est noble et tragique
Comme le masque d'un tyran
Nul drame hasardeux ou magique
Aucun détail indifférent
En rend notre amour pathétique
Voix off de Jean-Luc Godard dans le film