Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless: How World War II Changed Cinema & Helped Create the French New Wave

Did World War II help cre­ate the French New Wave? In a round­about way, yes, accord­ing to this video essay by Nerd­writer. Although Jean-Luc Godard’s A Bout de Souf­fle (aka Breath­less) was not tech­ni­cal­ly the first Nou­velle Vague film, it was the film’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary look and feel, and Godard’s exquis­ite sense of how to work the pro­mo­tion­al machine, that caused it to rever­ber­ate around the world. A few years lat­er, many oth­er coun­tries would be launch­ing their own New Waves: Britain, Ger­many, East­ern Europe, Aus­tralia, Japan, Brazil, Iran, and Amer­i­ca. Each were par­tic­u­lar to their own coun­tries, but all sought to cre­ate an alter­na­tive to the dom­i­nant film cul­ture, either Hol­ly­wood or their own country’s Hol­ly­wood-influ­enced film indus­tries.

That deci­sion did not come about in a vac­u­um, as the video points out. After the war, France was left with $2 bil­lion in debt. For­mer Inter­im Prime Min­is­ter and then Ambas­sador Leon Blum signed an agree­ment with America’s Sec­re­tary of State James F. Byrnes to can­cel debt and to start a new line of cred­it. One of the pro­vi­sions of the 1946 Blum-Byrnes agree­ment was open­ing France up to Amer­i­can cul­tur­al prod­uct, in par­tic­u­lar Hol­ly­wood films.

In French cin­e­mas, four weeks out of every thir­teen weeks would be devot­ed to French films. The oth­er nine were reserved for for­eign (i.e. most­ly Amer­i­can) films. But the trade off includ­ed a tax on movie tick­ets, so the increased audi­ence helped fund the French film indus­try.

Cer­tain results came about that were not planned. A young cinephile gen­er­a­tion was born, and its main jour­nal was Cahiers du Cin­e­ma, edit­ed by writer and the­o­rist André Bazin. The French could not lay claim to an indus­try like Hollywood’s, but they could point to invent­ing movies as we now know them (Georges Méliès and the Lumière Broth­ers were French), and for treat­ing film as an art form (by the Sur­re­al­ists, by the Dadaists) before any­body else, and not just as enter­tain­ment.

The young crit­ics who wrote for Cahiers du Cin­e­ma cer­tain­ly loved the influx of Amer­i­can films, which they devoured dai­ly in a city like Paris, espe­cial­ly at the Ciné­math­èque Française. Curat­ed by Hen­ri Lan­glois, this cinema/museum screened both new and old films, so much so that those crit­ics began to see the artist behind the enter­tain­ment. The rise of the auteur the­o­ry, coined by Bazin among oth­ers, placed the direc­tor at the cen­ter of not just their one film, but demon­strat­ed cer­tain tech­niques and inter­ests thread­ing through all films that they direct­ed.

Although there wasn’t a lot of mon­ey float­ing around, there was still enough to make short films and those critics—Jean-Luc Godard, Fran­cois Truf­faut, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Riv­ette, Eric Rohmer, and others—would start to put into prac­tice the the­o­ry that they had been writ­ing.

After a few shorts, Godard direct­ed A Bout de Souf­fle, and the world wasn’t real­ly the same after it.

The film was shot on a hand­held cam­era, by Raoul Cotard, who had used such a cam­era in the war for news­reels. They used avail­able light. And the two actors, Jean-Paul Bel­mon­do and Jean Seberg, impro­vised around a script that Godard would write the night before. Godard turned his brain inside-out, like emp­ty­ing a bag across a table: all his cul­tur­al obses­sions, not just in cin­e­ma, but in writ­ers, philoso­phers, music, and more, all came out. If Godard was going to be an auteur, then this was how to do it. And yes, the jump-cut edit­ing, as Nerd­writer points out, was shock­ing for the time. But so was see­ing the actors walk­ing around the actu­al streets of Paris. And so was hear­ing two peo­ple talk (and talk and talk) just like they do in real life. Even if a lot of those things have become com­mon place these days, when every­body car­ries a movie cam­era in their pock­et, Breath­less still brims with life.

Over the course of the ‘60s Godard and his con­tem­po­raries would both hon­or, indulge, and then break away from Hol­ly­wood influ­ences. The dom­i­nance of Hol­ly­wood prod­uct began to feel like impe­ri­al­ism, and America’s involve­ment in Viet­nam and its over­whelm­ing influ­ence on con­sumer cul­ture would lead to the events of 1968, and Godard’s out­right rejec­tion of Hol­ly­wood. He would end up killing his mas­ters, so to speak. But that was still to come. There’s still Breath­less, and there’s still 1960 in Paris.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch Jean-Luc Godard’s Film­mak­ing Mas­ter­class on Insta­gram

How Jean-Luc Godard Lib­er­at­ed Cin­e­ma: A Video Essay on How the Great­est Rule-Break­er in Film Made His Name

An Intro­duc­tion to Jean-Luc Godard’s Inno­v­a­tive Film­mak­ing Through Five Video Essays

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the Notes from the Shed pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

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