Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Film Club Reviews #6: Ten Thoughts Inspired By: A Bout de Souffle

1. Before I ever saw the film I saw this poster. A classic of graphic design. As soon as I laid eyes on it I knew I had to see the film. It radiated cool energy. And that title. At once a declaration of the film's style and the viewer's response to it. A promise and a boast. Stylish. Sexy. Breathless.

But its original title, A Bout de Souffle, translates as Out Of Breath. That's a B-movie title, slang for death, like Chandler's The Big Sleep. Consider if they'd used that as the English title instead. Would the film have attained such a cool reputation? Just imagine it on the poster. Stylish. Sexy. Out Of Breath.
Suddenly it's not so much an intimation of awed wonder as middle-aged decline. My younger self probably wouldn't have been so impressed, but so what? Does it matter? A title's just a title, after all, a way of identifying one film from another. Sure, mostly, but it's not always that simple. Consider these titles for example: Stranger Than Paradise. Some Like It Hot. White Heat. Touch of Evil. Now each of these could, at a push, describe what happens in their respective films, but I don't think that's what's going on when we read them. They're not merely labels, they're suggestive, free-floating, haikus of compressed mood. Yes, a good title can define a film, capture its essence, but it can also add to it, deepen it, complicate it. It's a chemical reaction. Just think of the mysterious, symbiotic relationship we have with names and they have with us. Do they shape us, do we grow into them? If you don't believe this then consider these possible alternative titles for the films above; Losers. TransAmerica. Mother Love. The Mexican. Does it make a difference? It's hard to say, but this much is clear, the anonymous translator tasked with finding an English version for A Bout de Souffle clearly thought so.

2. The film of tomorrow will not be directed by civil servants of the camera, but by artists for whom shooting a film constitutes a wonderful and thrilling adventure. - Francois Truffaut

The famous dedication is to Monogram Pictures. Monogram were a poverty row studio specialising in cheap genre flicks, serials and westerns. So what was the attraction for serious French cinephiles like Truffaut and Godard?

Well, for starters, because they were largely ignored or unknown they were an undiscovered continent, ripe for reappraisal. They often relied on genre conventions, offering rich ground for theorising, for detecting encoded meanings, hidden ideas, themes build up across a body of work. Also because they had less to lose they could show the seemier side of existence more freely than bigger studio productions, the kind of exploitation subjects considered beneath proper art. The French saw passed all that bourgouis respectability, understood that the life of a petty thief could be as worthy of great art as the noblest king, that an absence of craft or style might represent a film's phychological meaning, its hard indifference to the lies of romance. They were the first to realise that serious artists could exist outside the mainstream, might find the fertile confines of genre more to their liking, might prefer playful indifference to highbrow pretention.
But even the worst of these films taught them about innocent enjoyment, the pleasure of transformation, how much easier it was to bring the moves, clothes and dialogue into your life when they were ritualised, repeated, how cliches spoke to the yearnings inside ordinary people. By dedicating his film to Monogram Godard was sticking two fingers up at the industry, rejecting its middlebrow concerns with craft and rules, alligning himself with the outsiders, the dreamers, with those great American values of outrage, adventure and play. This is a game, he's telling us. We're playing here. So can you.

3. The famous opening line is: I'm an asshole, a provocation from the start, followed by a close up of a skantily clad girl on the front of a newspaper, lowered to reveal our hero, Michel, hat over his eyes, puffing on an enormous cigarette. He's cool, but posing too, a kid playing dress-up.

Then he runs the side of his thumb across his lips. It's a signal. To us. Thumb across lips. That's all it takes. Your Bogie. Your life is a movie. It's hard to appreciate now the impact of this message. A Bout de Souffle was the first film to acknowledge people's desire for movie grace in their lives, wanting their everyday existence transfigured by it, blessed with purpose and shape, ordinary personas imbued with unified glamour. You don't need to be famous, a star. The magic isn't out there somewhere, owned by producers, studios, agents, fans. It's in you now, once you've seen the film, it's yours, a gift, not a privilege. This is what cinema is, the democratisation of play. It's an evolutionary tool, teaching poor regional kids moves and gestures to help them escape impoverished lives, to face the twin terrors of adolescence and neighbourhood streets. After all, when you live in a non-verbal environment knowing how to stand on corners with cool indifference is a vital art. This is another thing the film is already telling us. The street is a movie set too.

4. We first see Patricia ambling down the Champ-Elysees in her flat shoes, sweetly calling 'New York Herald Tribune! New York Herald Tribune!' She's played by Jean Seberg, proof that nationality is a notional concept at best. She's supposed to be the American chick but comes across, in her clothes, her manner, her cropped hair, as ineffably French. It's hard to imagine any other contemporary American actress playing the part, actually American but spiritually in tune with the Frenchness of the whole enterprise. (The film too is at once American in its conventions and French in its style and ideas.)

It was that way from the start. Her screen debut was as Saint Joan (1957), hand-picked from 18,000 hopefuls by Otto Preminger. It was Preminger again who brought her to France the following year to play the spoiled Celine in Bonjour Tristesse. The same year she married film director Francois Moreuil. By the time of A Bout de Souffle they were divorced and she'd taken up with French author Romain Gary, marrying him in 1962. Was it fate or inclination that drew her to the French and them to her? Or was it the hair? The gamine prettiness? Whatever it was, it went on, until her tragic, mysterious death in 1979, found dead in her car on the same Parisienne streets she'd watched Belmondo play dead on all those years before, back when they were all young enough to think of death as a romantic game, something to be bargained with.

5. Leaving Patricia behind Michel passes a poster for a film called Ten Seconds To Hell (1959), its tagline proclaiming 'Live dangerously till the end!'

It's a lovely moment, not just for the renegade cheek of using the poster without permission, but for the serendipity of it being there in the first place, articulating the film's key theme - defying death. (You know you're in the zone when the world starts to speak to you like this, send you secret messages, when you see connections everywhere, when you start to believe there's no such thing as a coincidence, that luck, in fact, is just fate in disguise).

6. Once you accept the rule of death thou shalt not kill is an easily and naturally obeyed commandment. But when a man is still in rebellion against death he has pleasure in taking to himself one of the Godlike attributes, that of giving it. This is one of the most profound feelings in those men who enjoy killing. - Ernest Hemingway, 'Death in the Afternoon'

'It is solely by risking life that freedom is obtained,' Hegel wrote, somehow defining the essence of A Bout de Souffle over a century before it was made. The spirit of the film may be its exhilerating sense of freedom, it's jazzy liberation from social, artistic and cinematic conventions, but it's also obsessed with death, from its title to its conclusion. Or rather, with invoking it in order to feel more alive. If the taking of life could, as Hemingway suggests, ward off your own death, than so could acting it out. In this sense, the film is as ritualistic as a bullfight, a bloodless rebellion against death.
Just as ancient Greek rites evolved into formalised drama, the death of a tragic hero offered to the gods rather than the sacrifice of a goat, so too with cinema. It may be a game, Godard suggests, but it isn't frivilous. It's as serious as any religion, as vital to our happiness as freedom itself. It was a message that hit the new decade like a molotov cocktail, starting a creative blaze that lasted twenty years and engulfed the old Hollywood studio system in its wake.

7. 'What is your greatest ambition?' Patricia asks the novelist (played by director Jean-Pierre Melville) at the kind of pretentious press conference only the French would have. 'To become immortal', he replies, looking straight into the camera, 'and then to die'.

It's a joke, a contradiction. He might as well have said his ambition was 'to wake and then to dream'. It's an impossibility, mutually exclusive states, waking/dreaming, immortality/death. Except, of course, there is one place where the impossible can happen. When we watch a film, especially in the dark of a cinema, what else are we doing but dreaming while still awake? And when we watch the great stars of the silver screen like James Cagney, Bette Davis or Steve McQueen, what else are we doing but watching the dead walk again, forever alive in their films, made immortal by them?

8. Which is what Bogart represents in the film, not just a role model but an icon of immortality. Dead only three years when A Bout de Souffle was made, already he's becoming a cult, his moves, clothes and dialogue remembered, repeated and fetishised.

But why Bogie? What was it about him that so obsessed the French? Maybe he was, in some way, more French than other Hollywood stars, more ironic, fatalistic, ugly? Maybe the characters he played, men with secrets, with shadowy pasts, were more in keeping with a nation haunted by defeat, collaboration and existential dread? Whatever it was it went deep, just think of the hats and coats in Melville's own films like Le Samourai.

Of course, the Bogart of The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca and The Big Sleep was also the coolest man on the planet, a dream of tough grace under pressure. He crystallised the essence of cool long before Brando and Dean turned up, a man's cool, not a grumpy adolescent's, someone who's lived, seen things, been betrayed by events, by his own heart, hides his honour like a dirty secret. But we know it's there, we know he does care, does know which side is right, he just won't be played for a sap anymore. Being a man, he seems to say, is a moral act. If you don't know how to read people, if you don't know when to keep quiet, if you don't understand that sometimes cynicism is just the truth no one wants to hear, then you deserve what you get, you leave yourself wide open, cannon fodder for conmen, Nazis and certain kinds of women.

9. Then there's the lovely extended scene in Patricia's apartment. She arrives home to find Michel in her bed. What follows is spontaneity, calculation and natural light, cultural allusions everywhere. She poses before a poster of Renoir's Mlle Irene Cahen d'Anvers and asks who's the prettier. He caresses her bum and asks can he piss in her sink. She washes her feet and tell him she's pregant. He sits beneath a Picasso figure wearing a mask. She quotes from The Wild Palms by William Faulkner: 'Between grief and nothing, I will take grief.' Michel says he'd choose nothing. 'Grief', he adds, 'is a compromise'. They talk, flirt, test each other and eventually make love, fumbling under the covers like kids, not sure what their parents really do under there.

The claim that capturing Seberg's beauty on film matches Renoir's achievement on canvass is hardly worth noting now. But it's a reminder of a time before the triumph of popular culture when film was considered an upstart medium, devoid of true craft, a nickelodeon distraction for immigrant hordes and over-excited housewifes, not something to be taken seriously as high art. This was the fight Godard, Truffaut and the rest of the Cahiers du Cinéma critics were waging in the late 50s, rescuing great artists like Hitchcock and Hawks from the neglect this pompous snobbery had consigned them to.

And what about Michel's claim that grief is a compromise? Is it an existential statement, like Beckett's 'every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness', or is he just trying to sound cool. Is he suggesting that emotions are a refuge, a refusal to accept the truth? It's an interesting idea in an age when personal grief has become everyday currency. Would Bogie give in to grief, cry and wail, take to his bed, sell his story to the tabloids? No, he wouldn't. He'd take it inside him, order a drink, light a cigarette, another lesson learned, another test passed.
The cigarette is vital of course. Just consider how important they were in all this. Michel smokes non-stop throughout the film. Even his dying breath is a puff of smoke. Can you imagine a time when smoking was this cool? When things weren't ghosted by consequences, by health warnings, when people drank at work and smoked in cinemas, weren't constantly fretting about their health, short-changing their youth for a few extra years at the end? When looking cool now was more important than being alive then? It's all about how you look, y'see, masks, uniforms, encoded signs, the transformative power of objects and faces. 'The mystery of the world is in the visible, not the invisible,' as Oscar Wilde rightly pointed out. Open your eyes (and dream). We're being movie stars here. They're immortal. They never die of cancer or liver failure.

10. 'The film of tomorrow will be an act of love - Truffaut

Above all it's a film about love, love of cinema, love of life through cinema. There really was no difference to these young men. Cinema was life. Watching a beautiful woman and capturing her on film was the same thing to them. It was very chauvinistic, of course, but very romantic too (essentially the same thing). Romance has no time for feminist aspirations. It wants to be taken out of this crappy world, wants to idealise, heighten, improve. It's foolish, a youthful folly, but where would we be without it?

For a few brief years, as the world woke up from it's post-war slumber, a handful of young men believed that cinema was the new language of happiness and truth. A Bout de Souffle bottled that moment. It's a time machine. The spirit and energy of that moment can be revisited every time you watch it. You could even say it's immortal. Or to put it another way: Devil in the Flesh. Rififi. And God Created Woman. Scarface. A Bout de Souffle. The best film around.

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