Breathless and Cléo de 5 à 7

Volume 2, Issue 2

France and America are featured once more in Patrick Young and Rebecca Pulju’s examination of post-war consumer culture through the classic New Wave films Breathless and Cléo de 5 à 7. The cultural changes that accompanied the French economic miracle fascinated and worried observers who depicted a young generation adrift amidst the plenty. Godard’s film offered an homage to American cinema, but, as Patrick Young observes, by framing it within French existential philosophy, it invented a powerful new genre. Both Breathless and Cléo de 5 à 7 tie the new consumerism to an inner emptiness and narcissism. Characters roam about unmoored, seeking to affirm their existence through appearance, seeking their reflection in mirrors. The more optimistic of the two, Agnès Varda, suggests that an inner self remains locked within and that women can recover it by breaking free from the temptations and demands of the market. The films therefore provide fodder for discussions of French post-war prosperity against the backdrop of the Cold War and Algerian War, gender, consumerism, and selfhood.

Breathless

Patrick Young
University of Massachusetts-Lowell

Breathless (À bout de souffle) hit French theaters in 1959, at a time when France’s postwar modernization had begun to effect a seismic transformation of the country’s economy, social life and culture. One of the hallmarks of that change was the emergence of consumer society, as consumer durables became more widely available across class and geographic lines, and consumer desire and experience were more focal to French life than had been the case prior to World War II. Though firmly rooted in French history, consumer society was in the era of the Cold War viewed by many French political and cultural elites as an importation (or for some, an imposition) of an American way of life that squared imperfectly with French cultural mores and standards of value. As both a product of, and a critical reflection upon, this charged moment of French transformation, Jean-Luc Godard’s film can be a suggestive addition to courses on modern, twentieth century or post-1945 French/European history. In my experience, the film’s treatment of consumer society, Franco-American cultural engagement and exchange, and questions of film technique and modernist aesthetics prompt students to reflect meaningfully not only upon France’s postwar recovery, but also upon some of the predicaments of their own commodity-saturated lives.

The film’s plot is deviously simple, reputedly scrawled out by François Truffaut on the back of a napkin, with much of the dialogue improvised on the spot as Godard shouted lines to his actors. The movie’s opening scene shows Michel Poiccard (played by Jean-Paul Belmondo), a young car thief and wannabe gangster modeling himself on Humphrey Bogart and American B-movie clichés, stealing a car from an American military officer along the quais in Marseilles. Caught speeding on the highway to Paris, Michel shoots and kills a policeman, and then hides out in the city with the hope of securing money owed him and fleeing for Italy with his sometime American girlfriend, Patricia (played by the American actress Jean Seberg). The two spend much of the film in conversation and in movement about Paris, the police bumbling along on Michel’s trail as he tries vainly to retrieve his getaway cash and win Patricia’s affection. After some limited soul-searching as to her own desires and motivations, Patricia opts to betray Michel, and the film culminates in his being shot by pursuing policemen as he half-heartedly attempts to flee along a side street in Paris. The famously enigmatic final shot is of Patricia looking directly into the camera after watching Michel die, and wondering “Qu’est-ce que c’est degueulasse?” while aping one of Michel’s Bogart gestures.[1]

What makes À bout de souffle an historically important film is that it helped reinvent French film language, in part through appropriating and reworking American film idioms. American movies were by the 1950s fully familiar to French audiences, and Godard references them—along with Hitchcock and several recent French films—almost continuously throughout À bout de souffle. In line with its Cold War efforts to promote the American way of life abroad, and in recognition of Hollywood’s vital role in abetting American propaganda efforts during World War II, U.S. government officials made the opening of foreign markets to American cinematic exports a part of its diplomatic program for Europe in the late 40s and 50s.[2] Godard’s film attests to the pervasiveness of American film and cultural influence in France during these years, though it does so in a manner far wittier than many of the more polemical treatments of the subject appearing around the same time. The film is actually in some ways an homage to American cinema and Hollywood B-movies more specifically, as is made apparent in the opening dedication to Monogram Pictures—one of the leading American studios for cheap detective thrillers—and in the stock gestures and dialogue of many of the characters. Contemporaries of Godard such as Jean-Pierre Melville, who turns in a strangely hilarious cameo in À bout de souffle as a self-important celebrity novelist, similarly drew inspiration from American film vernacular to craft films of distinctive look and ambition.  The mostly young directors associated with what came to be known as the “Nouvelle Vague” (New Wave) adopted a more personal, spontaneous and experimental approach to filmmaking. While those qualities may seem fully evident to students in viewing the film, providing some historical context on the different but overlapping trajectories of the French and American film industries since the early days of cinema can help illuminate exactly what was new in the films of New Wave directors like Godard. At a minimum, students should understand how Hollywood’s standardization of film production and distribution in the interwar period opened up an international mass market for American movies, and forced challenges and adaptations upon French and other national cinemas.

The cultural cross-pollination that produced À bout de souffle assumes narrative form in the relationship between the two main characters. Godard was neither the first nor the last to conceive the Franco-American relationship in sexualized terms of desire and seduction, though his choice of gender codings reverses a familiar American tendency to feminize France and things French. In Godard’s film it is now America that has taken over the role of great cultural seducer, its unabashed modernity a lodestar of attraction particularly for a new generation of French youth. Michel’s character revises the voyou type first established in French cinema in the 1930s, adding a decidedly youthful and American inflection to the hard-bitten crook figure familiarly played by Jean Gabin and other actors. Thus does Michel’s love and professed connoisseurship of things American (automobiles, film stars, cigarettes, women) pair with a general indifference toward French standards of taste, as when he demonstrates his disregard of literature and art, states a preference for the Prisunic, and falls asleep while listening to a Mozart clarinet concerto in the penultimate scene. In his car thievery, Michel aspires to live the consumer mythology of the automobile, temporarily glimpsing a boundless abundance and glamour as he continually trades up to ever-more impressive American models. Patricia by contrast fits into a long line of American claimants to French cultural identification, struggling in her school French to comprehend Michel’s street slang, seeking out brand-name Dior dresses and adorning her student apartment with Renoir and Picasso art prints. The lines of appropriation run in both directions, as the characters grasp freely at cultural markers no longer safely enclosed within national boundaries or traditional hierarchies of value.

The world of À bout de souffle is one in which commodities saturate social life and culture, and young people contend individually and together with feelings of dislocation, alienation and identity confusion. Some of the renown attaching to À bout de souffle, as also to Godard’s immediately subsequent films, derived from the director’s knowing depiction of youth and seemingly prescient anticipation of the youth rebellion of the later 1960s. Michel and Patricia’s generation came of age in a world fundamentally different from that of their parents, defined as it was less by protracted economic instability and world war than by accelerated modernization and the shared expectation of improved material and social prospects. If Godard’s film aims (as it arguably does) at a kind of social realism, it is one based less in the depiction of averse social conditions than in observation of the young characters’ intimate internalization of the fragmentary quality of their social world. They are clearly the bearers of a new generational divide, referencing their families only in passing, evincing little or no connection to any kind of “home,” and seeming mostly to inhabit a world of their own. They experience culture and even morality less as something transmitted than sought out and tried on, choices along a landscape of expanded—though ultimately inconsequential—possibility.

It is in consumer culture, movies and media that Michel and Patricia find their cues for identity-formation and action. With an almost clinical detachment, Godard shows his two characters using the cultural matter around them to fashion personas, though also developing their capacities for concealment and self-absorption. Of the two, Michel more obviously grabs at life, whether it’s cars, women, empty tough guy mannerisms or equally empty hopes of escape. For her part, Patricia tries to reconcile longings for independence with the gendered constraints and expectations she encounters in her social and professional dealings, searching outside of herself for evidence of what she feels and wants. Their often-edgy interactions with one another revolve mainly around a frustrated search for authenticity, causing them to don and discard various “masks,” gaze into mirrors and at one another in search of affirmation, and play at movie-romantic dialogue and gestures. Students may find much that is familiar in the two characters’ struggles to stake out stable identity and meaning in a world organized as surface and exchange; but they should be invited to attune themselves equally to the historical specificity of both the characters and the film as a whole. The couple’s seemingly idle musings about sex, style and death, for example, evoke a postwar French historical context rife with Cold War anxiety and existential philosophy.[3] For all that the film portrays of a new convergence of French and American cultures, it also reveals glaring Franco-American divergences in the experience of the war and its aftermath. The characters’ overt fatalism, and Godard’s own Marxist leanings (about which more below) reflect a broader uneasiness in France and in the West more generally with the new American consensus. It was an uneasiness that found ample expression within French intellectual circles in the late 1950s, though also in new subculture movements like the Beats, whose spirit seems at various points to infuse À bout de souffle.

Critical discussion with students of the technical dimensions of the film reveals deeper layers to Godard’s critique of consumer society. À bout de souffle strikes many first-time viewers as a cheaply or even shoddily made film, flouting as it does many of the main conventions of narrative (and particularly Hollywood) cinema. Sound for example is often used by Godard to discordant effect, as when the music pairs awkwardly with the depicted visual action, or actual sirens, traffic or other street sounds intrude loudly upon the dialogue. Time is likewise made uneven in the film. Patricia’s discovery of Michel in the bed of her Paris flat introduces a long scene in which the plot effectively comes to a halt, as Godard allows his camera simply to observe the pair smoking, conversing, having quick sex, changing outfits and effectively doing nothing while waiting for a phone call. Yet at other times, the director employs the film’s trademark “jump cuts” to artificially speed along conversations and plot sequences, and give the film a more jagged rhythm. Other techniques, such as having characters look directly at the viewer, or having the camera in motion rather than fixed, contribute as well to disrupting the visual and narrative continuity viewers often expect of movies.

Students can be invited to describe the effect of these rather puzzling directorial choices on their relationship to the film, its characters and content. Asking for comparable examples of these techniques, whether in more contemporary film and visual media or in other media altogether (jazz, collage, reality TV, etc.) can generate insight into the intention behind the film’s choppy and improvisational look. Godard’s is clearly an aesthetic of deliberate discontinuity, one of its aims to unsettle the status of film as entertainment and commodity. As À bout de souffle regularly directs attention to its own artifice, it studiously keeps viewers “outside” of the film, thwarting the spectatorial desire to suspend disbelief and enter fully into the picture. Reviewers of Godard’s films over the years have commonly observed that their main subject is often film itself, and for students less familiar with the traditions of European and art cinema, À bout de souffle provides a relatively accessible example of applying modernist aesthetic principles to popular moviemaking. I have had some success in having students identify affinities between the film and earlier works of artistic modernism we had encountered in the course, as for example in the Impressionist embrace of mobile perspective, observational detachment and the animate/empty surface. Godard’s more political objective—one rooted partly in a Marxism then pervasive in French intellectual circles—is to expose the role of cinema in drawing people willingly into systems of control, turning ideology into common sense and falsely ennobling passive spectatorship as a surrogate for genuine social engagement.

The joining of Brechtian aesthetic principle and B-movie cliché in À bout de souffle can make the film seem today either enduringly original or something of a relic, depending upon the viewer’s own proclivities. Its recent 50-year anniversary certainly provided the occasion for renewed appreciation of its place within French and international film culture. Whether it can still speak meaningfully to the challenges of living in a world of accelerated commodity and cultural exchange is however a separate question, and one worth asking of students. They may be less than surprised by the fact that a film ostensibly critical of consumer society wound up begetting its own iconography of youthful consumer cool, in the look and mannerisms of the two main characters. Far more than Godard, they stand in a position to appreciate the degree to which commodity exchange has become boundless, and the Franco-American engagement but one instance of a broader and more confounding historical process of globalization. We are perhaps still awaiting the film that can fully address the insecurities and austerities of our own global present, and do so with the same kind of verve that Godard conjured in the face of Cold War consumerism.

  1. There are disagreements about how to translate the film’s closing lines.  See the various versions at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Breathless_(1960_film).
  2. American penetration of European cinema markets during these years followed less from shifts in popular taste than from specific policies (such as government-abetted cartelization of the American film industry, and quotas tethering Marshall Plan aid to openness to American film exports) that were initiated at a time of European competitive disadvantage. While France resisted these pressures longer and more successfully than Great Britain, Germany and other European countries, American film products occupied a substantial share of the programming in the hundreds of cinemas now in operation across France by the later 1950s.
  3. The moral nihilism of the two young characters, and their immodest sexuality, proved less offensive to French sensibilities than it did to American ones at the time. Bosley Crowther’s February 8, 1961 New York Times review of the film’s American for example claimed that “sordid is really a mild word for (the film’s) gross pile-up of indecencies,” and decried the film as “emphatically, unrestrainedly vicious, (and) completely devoid of moral tone.”

Jean-Luc Godard, Director, À bout de souffle [Breathless] (1960) France/Black and White, Les Productions Georges de Beauregard, Société Nouvelle de Cinématographie (SNC), Running Time: 90 min.

Cléo de 5 à 7

Rebecca Pulju
Kent State University

Agnès Varda’s 1962 film Cléo de 5 à 7 treats viewers to the visual delights of a bustling Paris in the midst of the trente glorieuses, the 30 years of economic prosperity that followed the Second World War. Less than 20 years after the destruction and economic dislocation of the war and occupation, France had become a mass consumer society, a transformation so dramatic that cultural studies scholar Kristin Ross has suggested French modernization be considered an “event” rather than a “process.”[1] The film chronicles the manic activities of Cléo (played by Corinne Marchand), a beautiful, young pop star, for the two hours in which she awaits the results of a medical test that will seal her fate. In addition to eliciting class discussion on the changes of the postwar period, the film’s focus on a woman who is effectively a product of mass consumer society can help introduce students to themes in the growing historical and cultural studies literature on gender, mass culture, and mass consumer society.[2]

Varda’s film begins with Cléo visiting a tarot card reader. The reading turns grim when the clairvoyant overturns a card depicting a skeleton. Both she and Cléo take this to mean death, although the reader half-heartedly explains that the card could also represent imminent transformation. Throughout the next two hours, the viewer follows Cléo through the streets of a vibrant Paris in which mass consumer society thrives.  Initially, the city’s prosperity commands our attention, but Varda’s dialogue steadily leads the viewer to understand that Cléo – herself a product of consumer society and mass culture – is essentially empty, narcissistic, and unhappy.  Only when Cléo leaves this inauthentic world to retreat to nature does she start to reveal her true self. Further, through an encounter with a young soldier also facing death, in his case by being deployed to Algeria, she begins to look outside of herself and appreciate the humanity of others.

Varda’s innovative camera angles places Cléo directly within the bustling consumerism that surrounds her, highlighting the remarkable contrast to the France of just a few years earlier, when almost one-fifth of the nation’s buildings were destroyed by the war and most families lived without hot water or indoor bathrooms.[3] By the mid-1950s, basic reconstruction had given way to building new housing, and the French population embraced new methods of spending, such as consumer credit. Between 1950 and 1960, consumption per person increased by 57 percent, rising by another 61 percent between 1959 and 1968.[4] Cléo weaves through this paradise, wandering in and out of cafés and stores, trying on hats and listening to pop music on the jukebox. These changes were not without critics, and French intellectuals, in particular, feared the standardization and loss of culture that mass consumer society entailed.[5] Varda implies a dark side to this prosperity  – which may elicit discussion of whether postwar consumerism emancipated or limited French women – in that, as a product of this society, Cléo’s self-worth is inextricably linked to her appearance. She stops in a hat shop and peers at herself in a mirror, stating “Trying things on intoxicates me.” At another point she remarks “Ugliness is a kind of death…as long as I’m beautiful I’m alive.” This perception is not limited to Cléo herself – we are shown that she is valued only for her appearance and that few people wish to know her in a deeper way. Her lover treats her like a child, and she complains that “he doesn’t take me seriously.” She does not tell him of her possible illness, underlining that their relationship only works because she is young, beautiful, and healthy. “Everyone spoils me; no one loves me,” she laments.

The idea that Cléo is a product of consumerism and mass culture is illustrated most clearly in making her a pop star, a product of the emergence of the postwar baby boomers as consumers in their own right, listening to the radio show Salut les copains and the music of teenage singers like Françoise Hardy and Sylvie Vartan. Cléo is a star, but she cannot read music and depends on the guidance of her songwriters who mock her when she insists that they acknowledge her talent. Despite her commercial success, she appears dissatisfied with her lack of power and influence, accusing the writers of exploiting her. “Soon,” she wails, “I’ll just be a puppet.” Throughout the film, Varda gives the viewer the sense that the rising consumerism is not benefiting everyone, as well as the sense that the self-obsessed Cléo is completely unaware of the lives of others. Susan Weiner has argued that in postwar representations young men are often associated with the political and young women with the sexual. Cléo’s lack of connection to or interest in political events is apparent early in the film as she and her assistant ride across the city. The radio reports on protests in provincial France and on the worsening situation in Algeria, neither of which make an impression on her. The scene also introduces a character whose position contrasts starkly with Cléo’s –a female taxi driver. Whereas Cléo is obsessed with her appearance, this woman makes no effort to appear feminine. Cléo finds this distasteful, but the viewer understands that the driver is eminently satisfied with her livelihood. More importantly, she is fearless, boldly enjoying her control over her unorthodox existence. In comparison, Cléo’s pleasures seem shallow and inauthentic. She has ceded control of her life to others, starting with the consultation of the tarot reader. Moreover, she lives in constant fear of existential outcomes she feels powerless to influence.

Cléo eventually gets fed up with way her songwriters treat her and takes off, taking the viewer once more through the busy streets of Varda’s beloved 14th arrondissement.[6] She eventually finds herself in the Parc Montsouris, where we witness a real transformation. As the cab enters the park, the sun shines on her face and Cléo looks radiant, reflected in the bucolic setting of the park. Wandering on her own, she encounters Antoine, a young soldier on leave but returning to Algeria that evening. Through this encounter, as distant from the word of commercial exchange as one can be in Paris, Cléo reaches beyond the world of appearance and for the first time considers the suffering of others. When she tells the soldier that she is always frightened, he responds: “In Algeria, you’d be afraid all the time,” explaining how “they die all the time for nothing.” She opens up to Antoine, who is unaware that she is a pop singer and seems to become her real self away from the glamour of consumer society. She happily drapes his rough soldier’s tunic over her shoulders – a contrast to her earlier fascination with the latest fashion. She also agrees to leave with him by bus, whereas earlier in the film she traveled exclusively by taxicab, and reveals that her real name is “Florence,” dropping the contrived “Cléo.” Perhaps most importantly, she forgets her own trauma and instead becomes interested in another human being. Cléo (now Florence) and her soldier decide to go first to the hospital to get her test results and then to the train station, whence he will depart that evening. On finding that the doctor is not in his office, she declares that she does not want to search for him since she and Antoine have too little time left together to waste. She seems happy for the first time in the film.

Cléo de 5 à 7’s usefulness in the classroom comes from its concerns with gender and the emergence of mass consumer society in France. Further, it juxtaposes prosperity in Paris with the tragedy in Algeria. In her street and café scenes Varda conveys intimacy through her focus on Cléo while offering panoramic views of a bustling society. The prosperity of France during the trente glorieuses is unmistakable, but so too are the limits of this prosperity in affording women true happiness. Before her transformation, Cléo is shown in an unflattering light: enjoying the amenities of consumer society while empty and narcissistic. Varda’s depiction is, of course, only one take on pop culture, which could be contrasted to studies of domestic consumption and how these decades affected housewives and transformed the home. In this light, Christiane Rochefort’s Les petits enfants du siècle (1961) and Elsa Triolet’s Roses à crédit (1959) offer excellent examples of the yearning for comfort and ease after years of war and economic deprivation, while also providing trenchant critiques of consumer society. Unfortunately for our American students, neither is available in English. A film version of Roses à crédit came out in France in 2009, but does not appear to be presently available for purchase in the US). As an alternative, Jacque Tati’s Mon oncle satirizes the modern home filled with consumer goods, and, like Cléo de 5 à 7, juxtaposes it with a more “authentic” France, in this case France before the advent of a consumer society.

Either on its own, or contrasted to other works, Cléo de 5 à 7 provides students with a vivid image of French prosperity in the 1960s, while at the same time raising questions about the benefits of these social, cultural, and economic changes for women. The film lends itself to discussion and would be a good way to address the history of women, gender, or consumer society, as well as post-war France.

  1. Kristin Ross, Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonization and the Reordering of French Culture  (Boston: MIT Press, 1998) p.4.
  2. For example, Richard Ivan Jobs, Riding the New Wave: Youth and the Rejuvenation of France after the Second World War (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007), Rebecca J. Pulju, Women and Mass Consumer Society in Postwar France (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), Vanessa Schwartz, It’s so French!  Hollywood, Paris, and the Making of Cosmopolitan Film Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), and Susan Weiner, Enfants Terribles:  Youth and Femininity in the Mass Media in France, 1945-1968 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001).
  3. Danièle Voldman, La reconstruction des villes françaises de 1940 à 1954: Histoire d’une politique (Paris: Éditions l’Harmattan, 1997) pp. 25, 176.
  4. Jacqueline Niaudet, “L’évolution de la consommation des ménages de 1959 à 1968,” Consommation: Annales du Centre de recherches et de documentation sur la consommation 16 (1970) p. 28.
  5. See Richard Kuisel, Seducing the French: The Dilemma of Americanization (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).
  6. For a list of all of the film’s locations, see http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0055852/locations.

Agnès Varda, Director, Cléo de 5 à 7 [Cléo from 5 to 7] (1962), France, Italy/Black and White, Color, Ciné Tamaris, Rome-Paris Films, Running Time: 90 min.

 

 

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