Everything Is Cinema
Though few young filmmakers would imitate Breathless, many would imitate Godard himself, such as Breathless revealed him to be: an artistically voracious autodidact devoted fanatically to the history of cinema.
Godard had been a critic for ten years before getting the chance to make Breathless. By the time he made his first full-length film, he was intensely aware of the role of the press in creating an idea of a film prior to its existence. As the director of a film born of a unique mode of production and philosophical orientation, he also required the appropriate conditions for a correct appreciation of his unusual work. He needed, in other words, to generate—and to induce critics to employ—a method of criticism that was apt for his own film. This was his self-appointed task as an interviewee. He needed to speak directly to his viewers in order to orient their viewing, and he made sure to become enough of a celebrity to get his voice quickly heard. Michel Dorsday, of Cahiers, recalled that Godard “grafted” onto the film “the fame of Jean-Luc Godard.”59
The popular and commercial recognition of Breathless, and the intriguing stories surrounding its production, created a demand for Godard’s presence in interviews. He was interviewed in Le Monde and in Arts at the time of the film’s release, as well as in Swiss journals shortly thereafter. These interviews were themselves a sort of virtuoso performance in which the director both illustrated and extended the methods of his film into the press. In Le Monde, Godard explained how he had worked:
Based on this theme by Truffaut, I told the story of an American woman and a Frenchman. Things can’t work out between them because he thinks about death and she doesn’t. I said to myself that if I didn’t add this idea to the screenplay the film would not be interesting. For a long time the boy has been obsessed by death, he has forebodings. That’s the reason why I shot that scene of the accident where he sees a guy die in the street. I quoted that sentence from Lenin, “We are all dead people on leave,” and I chose the Clarinet Concerto that Mozart wrote shortly before dying.60
In fact, Michel sees a “guy” (played by Jacques Rivette) lying dead in the street after a motor scooter accident (reminiscent of Godard’s mother’s death) and walks on impassively, but remarks to Patricia later that day, “I saw a guy die.” The next day, in bed with Patricia, he tells her: “Do you think of death sometimes? I think about it endlessly.” Thus the “subject” of the film is indeed stated as baldly as possible—a boy who thinks about death—but the cultural artifacts that reinforce the subject and weave it into the fabric of the film are present as a sort of code, and Godard made use of the press to publish the decoder.
Godard’s proposed interpretive method—and its difficult subtleties—did not go unnoticed. After seeing the film and reading the interviews, André Bessèges wrote in France Catholique:
They are shown a “guy dying in the street,” they are made to hear the clarinet concerto that Mozart wrote just before dying. The auteur assures us that it is to make us understand that his hero is obsessed with death. But one must have, to say the least, an acute sense of symbols, and also be an alert connoisseur of music, to catch onto those intentions.61
“To catch onto those intentions” required an initiation, an engagement on the part of the viewer. It also required the active role of the press in transmitting Godard’s remarks in the context of reports on the celebrity’s life. In a revealing moment in the film’s long central scene in Patricia’s tiny hotel room, Michel delivers a monologue on the women of different cities (a riff that Godard’s voluble and opinionated friend Roland Tolmatchoff recognizes as his own) that concludes by praising the women of Lausanne and Geneva above all. At the sound of the word “Lausanne,” the wail of an ambulance siren is heard sharply on the sound track. This sonic coincidence is no accident: the ambulance siren at that moment was added by Godard as a deliberate choice in the sound editing process (inasmuch as Breathless was shot silent and the sound track dubbed, all of the film’s sounds were intentionally applied) and its presence is a reference to the death of Godard’s mother in a motorcycle accident. Godard left the reference apparent to those who might perceive it but hidden from those who would not—yet given his sudden great celebrity, it was inevitable that the underlying facts would come out, and would render the passage explicable.
Godard slips into the film, and into the character of Michel Poiccard, such items of personal reminiscence as: the use of the Swiss numbers septante and huitante instead of the French soixante-dix and quatre-vingts for seventy and eighty, an ashtray that prompts mention of his grandfather’s Rolls-Royce, a comment by Poiccard regarding the luxurious Parisian building where he was born (evoking Patricia’s surprise at his déclassé status), numerous references to Godard’s own Left Bank nightspots and Right Bank landmarks, a mention of a name (Zumbach) from a recent Swiss murder case, the names of Godard’s Swiss friends.62
In a February 3 Tribune de Genève article, Godard, responding to a journalist’s question about those names in the film which “come from the Geneva phone book,” explained the story:
Yes, those are old acquaintances. I thought those fellows would be happy I remembered them. And why make the effort to invent names? Besides, Tomatchov [sic] is unknown in Paris or Berlin. Only the initiated will smile at this sort of connection. Just like when I have my hero say that on average the girls of Geneva and Lausanne are better than those of other European cities.63
Journalists were part of Godard’s system, providing skeleton keys to the work as they created the phenomenon on which they were reporting. Viewers and readers, upon their initiation into the film’s esoterica, themselves popularized the advanced cinematic philosophy that Breathless represented, becoming the first citizens of the new republic the film heralded: the republic of media self-consciousness, of the fusion of communication with theories of communication, of criticism with art.
Having joined his critical theories to his work of art, Godard was aware of the conflict between symbolic expression in a heavily layered and ironic work of fiction, and direct, sincere communication. His next work, which he had announced while Breathless was still in progress, would be constructed around a first-person monologue, and was calculated to allay any doubts (including his own) on the subject of his sincerity.
Speaking during the shoot of Breathless with Marc Pierret, the journalist from France-Observateur who was planted in the crew, Godard announced, “I’ll shoot my next film in Switzerland. With three times less money: an assistant, a cameraman, that’s all. It will be something about torture.” After the shoot ended, he told Michèle Manceaux of L‘Express that it would be called Le Petit Soldat. But it was not the only new project with which Godard had gone public. Although Le Petit Soldat, the story about torture, would indeed become Godard’s second film, it would, in a way, be his second second film.
His first second film had already been publicized, in August 1959, in the pages of Cahiers du cinéma. It was called Une Femme est une femme (A Woman Is a Woman), and was the story of a woman who tells her boyfriend that she wants to have a baby with him despite not being married. It was based on a story outline by the actress Geneviève Cluny, who had passed it along to the actress Michèle Meritz, who brought it to the attention of Claude Chabrol in 1957 while playing a small role in his Le Beau Serge. Chabrol showed the story to his assistant director, Philippe de Broca, and to Godard, who decided to join forces to turn it into a full-length script. In the course of what de Broca recalled as their “fifteen abominable days” of work together, Godard took him to “disgusting cafeterias at impossible hours,” and then announced that he—Godard—would write the story himself.64 Cluny, however, decided to give her story to de Broca, who made it into his first film, Les Jeux de l’amour (The Games of Love), in the summer of 1959 (it was released in June 1960).
Godard, however, gave Cahiers an acerbic six-page divertissement called A Woman Is a Woman, which is a comic love triangle between a woman and two men but with the added fillip of a pregnancy by the wrong one of the two men. It ended with a pun, in which Josette’s steady boyfriend calls her “infâme” (horrid), to which she replies that she is “une femme” (a woman). Godard’s publication of his story in advance of the release of de Broca’s film was a defensive maneuver to stake his claim to the story, which he would hold for the future; he would instead make Le Petit Soldat as soon as possible.
Starting another film as soon as possible was both to Godard’s and Beauregard’s advantage. Godard had wanted to sign for a second film before Breathless was released because he feared that, if Breathless failed, he might never get to make a second film. He was also jealous of Chabrol’s output (three films since 1958) and wanted to catch up. As for Beauregard, signing on to another project at once would allow him to collect funds from automatic aid to producers, with which he could pay current expenses and debts.
By the end of 1959, with the reputation of Breathless growing, Beauregard took advantage of the moment to announce, in a gag of a two-page display ad in the trade journal La Cinématographie française, his forthcoming production of Le Petit Soldat.
The ad was a singular stunt—a text, written in the style of a classified ad, appearing in Godard’s own distinctive handwriting, which read: “Jean-Luc Godard, who has completed ‘Breathless’ and is preparing ‘Le Petit Soldat’ seeks young woman between 18 and 27 to make her both his actress and his friend,” with Beauregard’s company and telephone number listed at the bottom of the page. The prank seemed to be a smarmy attempt to use his growing fame to seek young women in the guise of an open casting call. In fact, Godard already had an actress in mind for the role in the film, a young woman who had rejected a role in Breathless—Anna Karina.
It is a story the actress has told often, each time a little differently, to Cahiers du cinéma, to journalists and interviewers (including to this author), to audiences in New York and in London, and most thoroughly, to Beauregard’s daughter, Chantal, for her biography of her father.65 For a small role in Breathless, Godard had been looking for a model, a cover girl for Elle magazine whom he had seen in commercials (shown not on television but in movie theaters). He made contact and asked her to come to Beauregard’s office, where he offered her the role of the woman in St.-Germain-des-Prés from whom Betmondo steals money when he arrives in Paris. It required her to bare her breasts as she pulled her dressing gown over her head (giving Belmondo the moment to take cash from her wallet). For this reason, the actress refused the role (which Godard gave to Liliane David, Truffaut’s mistress).
Now, while planning Le Petit Soldat, Godard sent the model a telegram asking to speak with her about a different role in a different film, possibly the lead. Given her experience with the director in Beauregard’s office, she had some idea of what the role would, she thought, likely entail, so she ignored the message. But when she told two actor friends (Claude Brasseur and Sady Rebbot, both of whom would later work with Godard) about the note, they told her to respond at once, because they had heard rumors that Godard’s yet-unreleased film was remarkable.
She met Godard at Beauregard’s small office on the rue de Cérisoles. She took a seat. He walked around her several times and told her to come back the next day to sign a contract. She asked whether she would have to get undressed. He said, “No, it’s a political film.” She said that she wouldn’t know how to give a political speech; he said, in a colossal deception, “There aren’t any speeches, so come sign tomorrow.” She could not sign, however, because the actress, Hanne Karin Blarke Bayer, known professionally as Anna Karina (a name bestowed upon her two years earlier, at the beginning of her modeling career in Paris, shortly after her arrival from Denmark, by Coco Chanel in the offices of Elle), was only nineteen, and a minor under French law regarding contracts. (Her mother promptly traveled from Denmark to Paris to sign on her behalf.)
Shortly after Karina’s contract was signed, Godard’s handwritten ad appeared in La Cinématographie française. The effect of this publicity stunt was to make her casting appear to be the result of a response to the ad. Unaware of the ad, Karina was returning to her apartment when her concierge reported the contents of an article in France-Soir, to the effect that Godard had met Karina through a want ad placed in the trade journal, looking for (as she said) his “actress and soul mate.” Karina asked the concierge what this meant. To the concierge, it meant that the actress had slept with the director to get her role. The young actress, who was furious at what she considered a humiliating insinuation, returned to Beauregard’s office in tears, ready to repudiate the contract and face the consequences. The next day, Godard sent her a telegram making poetic reference to her Danish nationality—“A character from Hans Christian Andersen has no right to cry”—which also suggested that through her association with him, she had embarked on a fairy-tale destiny. She ignored the telegram; the director appeared at her door with an enormous bouquet of roses to make amends, and apologized for the ad, which, he said, was Balducci’s idea.66
Though Karina had already signed her contract, Godard began his effort to win her over to his cause. Karina recalled, “He invited me to a screening of Breathless. I didn’t like it at all. Then we had dinner together. None of this appealed to me in the least. I was basically a little suspicious.”67 Nonetheless, she accepted Godard’s request that she do a screen test:
One week later, during the screen test, he interrogated me.
Do you like to read?
And what about boys. Do you like boys?
What kind of boys?
Good Lord, what does he want from me? I didn’t want to answer. First of all, I thought it was none of his business and besides, it seemed very strange. I was on the verge of tears.
I said to him: Listen, this really is none of your business!
He didn’t insist.68
But of course, since Godard sought to eliminate the barrier between the personal and the artistic, between life on-camera and off, he would soon make it his business.