The Unlikely Femme Fatale: Breathless (1960)

Patricia Michel

When Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg) makes her first appearance in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 film Breathless, she hardly seems the femme fatale type. An American in Paris, hawking the New York Herald Tribune on the Champs-Élysées, she looks rather boyish in her t-shirt, pants and tightly cropped pixie cut. In fact, she doesn’t behave like a femme fatale either; far from seducing Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo), the film’s antihero, she turns down his advances multiple times, uncertain about her feelings for him. Nevertheless, his infatuation with her brings about his own destruction — almost as if she can’t avoid destroying him.

Michel’s own first appearance is more revealing, a kind of key to Breathless as a whole. The film opens (following a dedication to Monogram Pictures and the title card) on a newspaper featuring a pin-up, which is then lowered to reveal a young man in a suit, smoking a cigarette, with a hat pulled down over his eyes. After glancing around and removing the cigarette from his mouth, he draws his right thumb back and forth across his lips — a distinctive gesture, but the significance of it isn’t clear until later, when he repeats the action while gazing at a photo of Humphrey Bogart outside a movie theater. It’s an imitation; his life is an imitation, an attempt to emulate the gangsters he’s seen on the silver screen, and the fact that Godard closes this scene with an iris out underlines the cinematic connection, the artificiality of it all.

Thumb

Another telling moment occurs a few minutes into the film. While driving a car that he’s stolen, Michel discovers a gun in the glove compartment. His immediate reaction? He pretends to fire it while saying, “Pow! Pow!” just as a little boy might. Again, he’s playing a role — but things turn all too real shortly thereafter when he uses it to kill a policeman who confronts him. In more serious trouble than, presumably, he’s ever been in before, he decides to obtain a sum of money that’s owed to him, try to clarify his somewhat tenuous relationship with Patricia and flee to Italy, preferably with her at his side.

One gets the sense that Michel is in over his head here, but he is fully committed to his life of crime. It helps that he has no evident scruples over his misdeeds, no remorse, no conscience. If he does experience any sort of guilt, he keeps it well hidden; maybe that’s part of his persona, a need to appear unflappably cool, or maybe he really is that amoral. At one point, he witnesses an accident in which a man on a scooter is hit by a car. He briefly bends over to look at the victim, then walks on, seemingly indifferent and unfazed. Later, however, he mentions the incident to Patricia, as if it’s remained in his mind, though she changes the subject and prevents him from revealing his thoughts on the matter. “Do you ever think about death? I do, all the time,” he remarks later still, suggesting that there may be more to him than meets the eye. (Just before shooting began, Godard wrote to François Truffaut, who was responsible for the original treatment of the film, that “roughly speaking, the subject will be the story of a boy who thinks of death and of a girl who doesn’t.”)

Patricia Michel Hotel

On the other hand, his talk of death could just be another affectation, at least to some degree. Michel comes across as an inveterate liar, despite his insistence that “lying’s stupid. It’s like with poker. It’s better to tell the truth. The others think you’re bluffing, and that’s how you win.” There are times when it’s obvious that he’s being untruthful, but many of the other statements that he makes about himself sound like bluffing, like attempts to make himself sound interesting and knowledgeable about whatever subject is at hand: he claims that he worked as an assistant on a film at Cinecittà, that he sold cars in New York, that his father was a clarinetist. Is any of it true? It’s impossible to be sure.

The lines between fiction and reality, between art and life, are blurred throughout Breathless — which, as it happens, was inspired by a real-life incident that occurred in 1952, when Michel Portail (described in the documentary Chambre 12, Hôtel de Suede as “a sort of white-collar hoodlum,” and romantically involved with an American journalist named Beverly Lynette) killed a motorcycle cop. (Fiction blurs with fiction as well: Godard saw Patricia as an extension of Jean Seberg’s character in the 1958 film Bonjour Tristesse.) Instead of talking about themselves directly, the characters sometimes do so through stories, as when Michel speaks admiringly of a girl he read about who stuck by her lover in spite of his being a criminal — clearly an attempt to feel out his relationship with Patricia, to whom he’s relating this tale. Patricia, meanwhile, notes that she plans to incorporate elements from her life into a novel; she compares her looks with those of a girl in a Renoir painting; she tells Michel that she wants the two of them “to be like Romeo and Juliet.”

Renoir

As this indicates, Patricia is something of a romantic. (Michel is too, in his own thuggish way, what with his plan to run off to Italy with the girl he loves.) Without being particularly innocent, she doesn’t seem to fit into Michel’s world of petty and not-so-petty crime. Upon learning that he’s a wanted man for shooting a police officer, she seems startled (though more so by the discovery that he’s married), she questions him — yet she doesn’t abandon him, at least not then. “It’s too late to be scared,” she declares. She even takes great pleasure in helping him steal a car once the truth is out. Before long, her excitement fades. When she does decide, the following morning, to turn him in to the police after all, the decision seems motivated not so much by moral scruples over what he’s done as by her doubts about whether or not she really loves him, and she can only offer him a rather confused explanation. “I stayed with you to make sure I was in love with you. Or that I wasn’t. And since I’m being mean to you, it proves I’m not in love with you,” she says, among other things.

Perhaps a better explanation can be found in an interview with Godard from the December 1962 issue of Cahiers du cinéma. Discussing Breathless, he said, “To start with, I intended to do the opposite of, say, The Killing: the gangster would win and leave for Italy with his money. But as an anti-convention it was too conventional […] Finally, I decided that as my avowed ambition was to make an ordinary gangster film, I had no business deliberately contradicting the genre: he must die.” For that to happen, Patricia must betray him. She has to play the role of the femme fatale, much as Michel is playing the role of a gangster. How fitting, then, that the man who sees the couple together, recognizes Michel from his picture in the newspaper and notifies the police, thereby establishing the connection between Patricia and Michel and paving the way for her to turn him in, is played by a familiar figure: Godard himself.

Godard

Sources

Chambre 12, Hôtel de Suede. Directed by Claude Ventura and Xavier Villetard, La Sept, 1993.

De Baecque, Antoine, and Serge Toubiana. Truffaut: A Biography. Translated by Catherine Temerson. New York: Knopf, 1999.

Godard on Godard. Edited by Jean Narboni and Tom Milne. Translated by Tom Milne. Da Capo, 1986.

2019 Spring Blogathon purple-noon

This post is part of the CMBA 2019 Spring Blogathon: Femme/Homme Fatales of Film Noir. Click the banner above to see all of the other great posts.

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8 thoughts on “The Unlikely Femme Fatale: Breathless (1960)

    1. Thanks so much! Yes, it always makes me a little sad to see Seberg here, knowing how things ended for her. I feel the same way when I watch Romy Schneider, Montgomery Clift, and no doubt several other actors that I’m forgetting.

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  1. Excellent review Erin. Breathless was such a groundbreaking film when it came out – mainly for its filmmaking techniques and cinematography. But it’s still a “gangster” film with its femme fatale as you make clear.. So a great addition to the blogathon.

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    1. Thank you! I remember when I first saw it, probably around 2012, it seemed so different from everything else I had seen up until that point, even though it has its roots in earlier films.

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