Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Breathless and French Feminism

colleenaryanne's picture

This semester I am taking Intro to Film with Michael Tratner.  We recently watched a 1960’s French New Wave film directed by Jean-Luc Godard, Breathless.   This movie featured two main characters: Michel and Patricia.  Michel steals a car, impulsively shoots a policeman, and spends the rest of the film on the run from the police.  He imposes himself on his “girlfriend” Patricia, a young New Yorker who sells newspapers in the streets of Paris.  Michel spends most of his time trying to convince Patricia to sleep with him and have her run away with him to Italy, and Patricia spends most of her time blowing him off and pursuing her career as a journalist. 

Now, Patricia is a fascinating character.  Right away she seems like the bold feminist type, and initially I liked her character, but as it turns out the rest of the class did not share my opinion.   A lot of the film is spent focusing on the two characters, their existential discussions, and him trying to convince Patricia to admit that she is in love with him.  She is resisting the idea of loving him, all the while holding to her the secret of his existence from the police.  However, at the end of the movie, she turns him in to the authorities.  The reason she gives in the movie is that she simply wanted him out of her life, and he was not going to leave to Italy without her.  She says that she finally realized that she must not love him, and so the next best thing to do was to turn him in so that he would be forced to run away.  Much to everyone’s surprise, instead of running away like she told him to, he stays behind to get caught and ultimately shot and killed by the police.  

I left the movie feeling that Patricia was not your average female protagonist, because the basic point of French New Wave is to fight against the standards that Hollywood set for films.  She thought for herself and didn’t let this man take over her life like he wanted to.  She wanted to stay in Paris and continue on her career path, and he was not going to let her do that.  The only thing she could really do was to turn this “murderer” in and get him out of her life so that she could keep living.  (Might I also mention that Michel was a misogynistic pig who was abusive and at one point in the movie almost strangled her for fun.) 

However, when I walked into class on Thursday, I walked right into a heated debate between a Bryn Mawr first year – we’ll call her Alana – and a male Haverford student, who we’ll call Sam.  Sam had apparently said that Patricia should not have turned Michel in.  His death was entirely Patricia’s fault, and that if she had simply dropped her entire livelihood and moved to Italy with this man who she claimed she didn’t love – but of course she was probably wrong, according to Sam – then he would never have died.  “Snitches get stitches,” he said.  Alana was heatedly refuting this point, saying that it was in no way her fault that he died.  She had a job, she had a life outside of this murderer, she didn’t love him nor did she have to love him.  He should have run away after she turned him in; if he hadn’t stuck around, he never would have been shot.  It was practically a suicide.  The debate went on until Tratner stopped them to start class.

It left me thinking: is this movie feminist?  Is Patricia a character who fought against the men in her life, and struck her own path in the world? Is this film representative of French feminism in any way?

I do believe that this film exemplifies the French feminist ideals.  Not only is the character Patricia the opposite of what one expects from a female movie character, but the film itself is constructed and presented in a distinctly feminist way.  Breathless is famous for its jump cuts, which are film shots edited together to create a discontinuity in the time and position of the camera. Click here for an example of jump cuts.

This is very “interruptive,” the jump cuts disrupt the flow and structure of the whole scene and create an unsettling effect.  It is like Gertrude Stein’s poetry, where line breaks happen in the middle of a thought or a sentence, and standard grammar rules are discarded.  The jump cuts cut off the dialogue, creating a choppy, disorienting conversation between the characters; the standard rules of film editing have been thrown out in this movie.  This kind of cut happens often throughout the movie, and one almost loses sense of timing because of it.  One conversation, indeed one sentence, can seem to last through hours of movie time because of the discontinuity of the shots. 

The classic feminist concept of the “male gaze” is also challenged in this film.  Throughout the movie, Michel strives to emulate Humphrey Bogart, and references to this famous Hollywood actor are plentiful. 

The opening scene (the first 40 seconds of this video)

The “establishing shot” of the movie, or the first shot at the beginning of the film, is not of a landscape or scenery – as is common in film – but is a shot of a pinup in a magazine.  The first thing the viewer sees is the image of a female model in “scandalous” clothing, which soon pans out to show the viewer that it is indeed Michel who is looking through the periodical in which the pinup is featured.  He is dressed like Humphrey Bogart, with a fedora and sunglasses and a sly smirk on his face, and basically represents the quintessential “male gaze.”  One of Bogart’s signature moves that Michel emulates constantly throughout the film is rubbing his thumb against his lip (@35 seconds on the above video).  Michel is immediately established as the male gaze – but throughout the movie it slowly moves from him to Patricia, and at last, in the final scene, Patricia stares back at the audience and imitates Bogart’s lip rubbing move. 

The gaze has switched from Michel, the misogynistic male, to Patricia, the strong, independent woman who didn’t let anything get in her way.

Perhaps it is a cliché for feminist film, but Breathless seemed to me to be fairly representative of the French feminist movement: interruptive, featuring the male as the victim and ultimately eliminated character, and existential.  Even so, in film class the feminism in this movie wasn’t mentioned at all.  Surprising, especially for a class taught at Bryn Mawr.  Perhaps if feminism had been explored, the argument between the students in the class would not have had to happen. 


Anne Dalke's picture

Breathlessly feminist?

I'm noticing a certain "mode" @ work here; last month, you put an English class on freaks into conversation w/ ours; this time, you're placing our critical feminist work into juxtaposition w/ another class on film. I like very much the sorts of interactions that can emerge from from such juxtapositions (it puts me in mind of the vision of the 360 program, which is trying to institute what generally happens much more randomly and serendipidously in students' education: the intersection of different courses).

You share a number of interesting observations about Breathless (and I'm grateful for your active links, which easily enabled me to watch portions of the film you were discussing--very smooth!). I'm especially appreciative of the way in which you analogize Godard's jump cuts w/ Stein's line breaks, as the sort of unsettling, interruptive, discontinous structure that forces the viewer/reader to use her imagination to figure out what's happening (or not!). (The gutters we looked @ in Persepolis operate the same way, I think.)

The other interesting dimension in your project is the play between syntax and semantics, between the form of the film and its content, the way in which the scenes are shot and juxtaposed, vs. what actually occurs in them (the expression of the male gaze, for instance, or of female agency). So: I'd like to hear you think through these differences a little more thoroughly; are you saying that both filmic dimensions exemplify the sort of challenge to the structure of phallocentric language that the French feminists advocated in writing?

Finally, this project begs the question of why...why place Breathless in a feminist context? What does doing so accomplish? It may have avoided the argument that occurred in your film avoiding argumentation a feminist goal? And how does bringing Breathless to the table add to our conversation in this class? Does it enlarge the discussion in both classes, in ways that might not otherwise have happened?