In the last moments of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 breakthrough film, “Breathless,” audiences are transported from the universalism of cinema into a defining French film. With nods of homage to American Gangster Cinema littered about in “Breathless,” and the alluring American female lead, played by Jean Seberg, one might be fooled by Godard’s American antics. Yet, the final dialogue we hear in “Breathless” has been contested by translators and critics, even seeing different subtitles on various releases of the film.
The French word that has boggled and bewildered “Breathless” audiences? “Dégueulasse,” which in its literal translation means to spew, chuck or throw-up, to vomit. Its slang origin is often read in the film’s English subtitles as, “Puke.” Jean-Paul Belmondo’s iconic character, Michel Poiccard, spits out his dying breath, “Makes me want to puke.” Jean Seberg’s American beauty, asks blankly in a state of shock, “What did he say,” to which the pompous French inspector replies, “He said, you make him want to puke.” Like a perplexed exclamation point, Seberg utters the last line of the film, “Qu’est ce que c’est dégueulasse?”
“What is (Puke?), she utters and confusion infests the scene, both for the characters and in American audiences comprehending the French slang. Translations of Dégueulasse, have been seen as, “Scumbag,” and “Bitch.” Both of which can be synonymous to “puke”, but yet at the same time carry very different meanings. In the context of the scene, all that matters is that Patricia, just as she doesn’t understand Michel, is an American aboard in Paris and doesn’t fully grasp the slang, or the Parisian underbelly of culture.
Foreign films often carry misunderstandings in their translations that can easily ruin the true essence of a film. Surely, some American films probably get lost in translation for other cultures as well. Yet, as “Breathless” made its way into the arena of pop culture as an art film, Godard seemed to embrace this cultural language barrier as message in the film. Why does any of this matter? With this particular scene from “Breathless” it pinpoints the start of Godard’s career, which often challenged the far reaching influence of American society. It was in fact, Godard’s breakthrough as a debut feature film, a moment in cinema truly unmatched in its influence.
The influence of “Breathless” is unmatched because no other film director has made such an impact with a debut feature. Look in any encyclopedia of cinema or any critic’s guide to film history, and you can bet that the book’s index will have “Breathless” under “B.” Stylistically, it pervades the films of Quentin Tarantino, Guy Ritchie, Richard Linklater, Jim Jarmusch and Robert Altman; it is a noted influence for Jonathan Demme, William Friedkin, Scorsese, Coppola… the list is incalculable. Perhaps the film’s most characteristic contribution to cinema is the Jump Cut. While Godard did not invent the Jump Cut in film editing, his artistic application of it in “Breathless,” pioneered its use in all of modern film making.
This unforeseen use of film editing gave Godard trailblazing status and the film’s international acclaim put the French New Wave on the map. It was also testament to making edgy, groundbreaking films on a low budget, something that has carried cutting edge cinema into the 21st Century. As Moviemaker magazine once published, “Watch “Breathless” and you’ll see the birth of guerrilla cinema: jump cuts, handheld shots, long unbroken takes, tracking moves accomplished with a wheelchair; scenes filmed in natural light; street sequences shot without permits or lights or craft services; gunshots and off-screen crashes.” The days of Hollywood’s go-big or bust mentality was no longer necessary for films to have a global impact. This was not original to Godard either, as he so dutifully presents in the opening sequence of “Breathless,” “Dedicated to Monogram Pictures.”
Monogram Pictures was an innovative American film studio in Hollywood that produced dozens of films between 1931 and 1953. The films made their cultural stamp in the action-adventure genre, and with “Breathless” Godard both makes homage and satire of the action genre. Despite having the plot structure of a crime drama, the action sequences in “Breathless” are choppy and underdeveloped, and at times aesthetically humorous. This is not due to Godard’s shortcomings as a director, but more a stylistic choice to displace the focus of action and plot into the art of filmmaking and philosophy of characters.
On the surface, “Breathless” is a fun-loving romantic crime comedy about Franco-American relations. Its dialogue seems absurdist, carrying no real meaning in defining these eccentric characters. Yet, anyone who has come to know Godard as The philosopher-filmmaker realizes a poetic portrayal of a disillusioned generation, something deliciously French and ubiquitously globally at the same time. Rumored to have scribbled lines of dialogue before shooting scenes for “Breathless,” Godard’s words juxtapose a mocking of young love to an existential banter about death and thought.
This spoken dialogue weaves intermittently into the larger visual scope of the film, which is a dialogue within itself. “Breathless” is consistently noted as a study of space, where Godard penetrates his characters with unusual camera movements, and riveting jump cuts. The cinematography is unusual because it blends into the crowds and scenery of Paris, revealing, yet rarely spotlighting the characters. It is only in moments of characters peering into mirrors or at their reflections in storefronts that we get a sense of the camera moving in for the close-up. Of course the cinematography is the unforgettable handiwork of Raoul Coutard.
Beyond being a study of space, “Breathless” is also about the sensation of sound and the art of saying anything. With this, “Breathless” is purely cinematic, where every element of filmmaking dominates its own galaxy, which then collides brilliantly to form its own universe. Coutard’s cameras slide up, down and around hotel counters and Parisian boulevards, then glide up escalators and walls, only to get trapped in elevators and in between the sheets. The booming jazz score from Martial Solal gnaws away the transitional scenes, while simultaneously smoothing over generic postcard shots of Paris.
Godard’s studious direction has its greatest moments when the lovers (Michel and Patricia) are fully engaged. From the iconic bedroom scene in Patricia’s apartment to their ending rouse in their hideout, the characters dance circles around each other while barely moving. All the while, seemingly natural sounds invade the scenes like an off-screen character who reminds us that reality churns on outside the walls of this love charade.
This may all seem like silly poetic rambling, but should “Breathless” ever resonate with your cinematic mind, it will harbor meaning. In cinema circles, the film’s influence is a general assumption. The defining breakthrough for the French New Wave, Godard wields a French sword double edged as snub and salute to American cinema. All the same, it is still just an enjoyable piece of cinema. That is how one should undertake their first experience of “Breathless.” To just let the plot roll, its characters dance, its sequences awaken humor and philosophy alike; to lay awash in its natural lightening and supernatural sound. “Breathless” is probably the most accessible art film ever made, allowing for a joy ride of an initial viewing.
Then, as with most of Godard’s films, after the light hearted symphony of light, sound and words has cascaded over you, the critical anamorphous of cerebral interpretation can take hold. We can fire darts of intellectual speculation which never quite hit the bull’s-eye of Godard’s enigmatic film. Here again, Godard fools us by first navigating a sea of now universal filmmaking techniques, but with further analysis we see that the director has craved a notch into defining French culture. Alas it is paradoxical, for as much as Godard may paint a portrait of Parisian culture perceiving Americanism, his fundamental philosophy is just as universal as the influence “Breathless” has had on filmmaking.