Existentialist Sensitivity vs A Life Consisting of Obsessions, Seductions, Career Rivalries and Fight for Financial Advantage

1960 film about a wandering criminal (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and his American girlfriend (Jean Seberg)…

A small-time thief steals a car and impulsively murders a motorcycle policeman. Wanted by the authorities, he reunites with a hip American Journalism student and attempts to persuade her to run away with him to Italy.

Michel is a young hoodlum who meets up with American student Patricia, an aspiring journalist. Patricia agreed to hide him… The authorities close in, she betrays him.
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You cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness. In this case, it comes from nonconformity, the courage to turn your back on the old formulas. The courage to invent the future.
Thomas Sancara, President of Burkina-Faso (Thomas Sancara was assassinated on Oct. 15, 1987)

Michel is not an existentialist philosopher and is not in any way a specialist in this philosophy or a follower of it as a doctrine. He is a spontaneous, visceral existentialist. His existentialism is not conscious, it is emotional, tactile. As his existential project it is in him all in unknown future. It is not born yet. It has to be consciously, verbally, mentally and creatively elaborated. But it never will get a life

Michel is a proto-existentialist, an embryo of an existentialist man or, may be, existentialist baby-orphan.

Summary of the film

Part 1. Michel is acting out the survivalist lessons of everyday life
Part 2. How to awaken people’s existentialist sensitivity and disappear into existential alternative of the factual world?
Part 3. The corner of two confused souls and two overburdened by symbolic connotations human bodies
Part 4. Patricia’s repentance and Michel’s prophetic verdict on people’s conventional future

A Bout de Souffle 1960 Breathless English Subtitles

Patricia and her journalist-friend helping her career

JLG makes his first feature-length film

Godard (in the center), Raoul Coutard (with camera) and Jean-Paul Belmondo (Michel Poiccard lying on the road) are shooting the finale of the film

Godard is discussing with Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo their characters’ motivations

Michel’s critical posture toward the society

Michel’s mimic formula of people’s conformism in WWII democratic society

Michel, the bastard of existentialist sensitivity (which nobody except Godard and, maybe, Truffaut know how it could fly into his soul), doesn’t feel that he belongs to a country of existentialist philosophers and writers – to a democracy of individual self-assertion, competitive ambitions and traditions of humanistic phraseology

For Michel, an amateur anarchist, the craft of out-maneuvering and out-fooling his fellow humans is too degrading and boring. Here, we see him looking at the world, as if, he is an alien amidst a pseudo-pragmatic and chaotic environment.

Michel’s particular gesture of, as if, zipping up his mouth is a sign of refusing to talk in the way personal communication is understood in this society – platitudes about personal achievements, sharing career-and-success dreams and plans, and laughing together at other people different “from us”.

Patricia Franchini – a tough little butterfly in a big world

Patricia, conventionally respectful and a bit frightened by a world where she is doomed to try to achieve and secure her success, enters the complex of shops, restaurants and movie theater – a kingdom where you feel immediately belonging to the magic power of the dominant way of life.

Michel and Patricia or Patricia and Michel?

Patricia loved what she felt as Michel’s power of character, and she loved the aura of mysteriousness around it, but she knew that this power doesn’t correspond to the society in which she planned to live and succeed in. She learned to love Michel’s dedication to an unknown alternative to the reality they both known – another life perceivable only as a big volume of sensed and felt “something else”. But the stronger she loved him the stronger became his desire to meet this alternative together with her, to discover this not yet existing world together with her.

More and more Patricia’s love was able to make his existentialist dream, which was defined only by his sensations and feelings – stronger in Michel’s soul, and it made him more depended on her existence. He began to feel that without Patricia’s love he is just a bum mixed up in petty crimes. It is Patricia who made him to feel his dream as a beautiful future world with alternative sensibility, a world of their progeny which will be better and wiser human beings than people they both saw around them. With Patricia’s love Michel now felt himself not just as the carrier of an unknown future (about which he himself didn’t really know much about), but as a master of spiritual resistance to the bankrupt routine values.

Love and making love

Love dreams to have a physical particularization, to conquer the flesh, teach it sublimation and refinement, while making love needs love for justification and intensification

Godard’s lovers in “Breathless” want “equality” and harmony between love and making love. They want love to be like making love and love-making – like love

Here we see a moment when Michel becomes part of Patricia’s body, when part becomes equivalent of the whole, when body becomes face

This (Michel’s) gaze is not only directed at Patricia, without whom the realization of his dream is impossible. But it is also Michel’s gaze at the viewers, at the people in general – he needs them to understand him and her, to understand their dream, which he himself doesn’t know how to explain or even depict.

Heroes and role-models of today’s world, antagonistic to the very spirit of Michel’s existence

Superstar of fame and wealth (played by Jean-Pierre Melville)

Police Inspector Vital (played by Daniel Boulanger)

Inspector Vital is obviously taking pleasure from having power over life and death.

Wounded Michel Poiccard is not trying to run away from the police or resist. Betrayed by desperate Patricia (whose love for him was forcing her to make too radical change in her life and priorities), whom he gave the chance to abandon him, Michel is running somewhere in the direction of his uncertain existentialist dream.

Michel’s last communication – his mimic critical formula of people’s (Patricia’s) conformism – greed to consume pleasures provided by society in exchange for obedience; the polite and happy smile trying to persuade those around that a smiling person is loyal to habitual life, and seriousness in trying to make career and success for my own pleasures and to please the decision-makers and their bodyguards.


From the first shots of the film we see Paris around the “blobs” of Michel Poiccard’s close-ups and the feverish geometry of his attempts to steal a car or money through a combined strategy of speed, cheerfulness, resourcefulness and violence – competence he borrowed from this city by observing people’s tireless efforts and through the entertaining media and generic ideology of personal success and capability. Modern city doesn’t exist without its inhabitants’ self-aggrandizing prowess, when the bragging haves and the proudly desperate have-nots narcissistically compete – who will out-smart, out-appropriate and out-consume whom. Modern cities don’t exist without the heights of fights, teeth of theft, violins of violence, mania of money, dance of guns, pearls of girls, solace of sales, peaches of riches and malice of the police.

These introductory close-ups of Michel (transforming Paris into a background) simultaneously interrupt Paris (show his discontinuity from it, connect him with it (show his congruence with it) and hint at how important the twisted icon of his face is for the viewers to brood about this character’s identity and personality. Here, Godard, as if, suggests the topics for the viewers’ mental focus – Paris and Michel Poiccard, Michel Poiccard and Paris or Michel Poiccard as or for or vs. Paris.

From the first urbanistic action-episodes Michel acts, as if, “automatically”, in a trance. Look at his proud postures and almost contemptuous grimace when he observes the world while calculating his opportunities to succeed and be, at least for a while, on top. He, as if, all the time emphasizes his separateness from a world which he, as if, has been inserted into not by his own will. His actions of theft or moments of violence are, as if, part of the videogames he temporary felt belonging to. These action-moments, as though, didn’t belong to his personality and are activated by some autonomous fragments of his soul. And yet, when you look at the screen it feels that all these criminal street pantomimes somehow belong to his personality. In this sense it is impossible to deny the ambiguity of Michel as the hero of the film.

Godard’s point here is, it seems, that in the modern society a film hero cannot be completely positive – when movies represent a hero as such then the art is lying, and therefore it is not real art – it is just (commercial) entertainment or/and ideological propaganda. The lesson about moral ambiguity of post-modern hero Godard created in “Breathless” he repeated in “Le petit soldat” (1962), “Band of Outsiders” (1964), “Perrot le fou” (1965) and, of course, “Made in U.S.A.” (1965) with Anna Karina as Paula Nelson. Godard again and again tells us that we, today’s people, are immoral even when we deserve some respect and even admiration, that we have to forget the vicious illusion that it is adequate for us to be represented as moral and decent people (because in our essence we – the children of Western democratic post-WWII boom, can be, for the most part, only poseurs of positivity, not role-models, but role-muddles).

The moral ambiguity of the main characters whose immorality has to be redeemed through them being victimized or sacrificed, makes this self- or circumstantial sacrifice the only way for Godard’s positive heroes to be finally considered as role-models. It is this type of a semantic twist-knot that explains the role of Patricia Franchini in Michel’s victimization, meaning not so much her unintentional and “approximate” participation in his murder, but her love for Michel. It is, as if, her love to a substantial degree is responsible for him being murdered by the police and to a much more substantial degree makes him a hero of a very spirit of democratic times. Public consciousness accepts Michel as a democratic hero only through his sacrifice – (sacrifice is a common denominator of totalitarian and democratic cultures – both cultures of wars).

It is, as though, “Breathless”, on the one side is suggesting that Michel is a rare and a tremendous person, and on the other, that he is dirtied by the reality and poisoned by infantile bravado and megalomaniacal idealism. It is this that leads to the film’s semantically structural solution that Michel has to be redeemed through being victimized. It is, as if, Patricia’s love for him is determined by her feeling of his existential spirituality (in a form of existentialist dream) as a secular variant of his life after his death stamped by her over-pompous oath.

But why does Michel need Patricia? Why is he pursuing her? Why doesn’t he go to Italy on his own or with somebody else? Is it because without her he will waste the meaning of his trip and then from a Parisian petty criminal he will just become an Italian one? May be, it is exactly togetherness with Patricia helped him to feel his dream of alternative way of life as a real and vitally important. May be, he doesn’t want her to become a careerist pursuing life of intellectual technician of professional knowledge and verbal entertainer. He needed her trust, her belief in his dream, for the sake of himself and herself.

Michel and Patricia’s love for each other is their belief in an alternative existential sensibility. Their love is not nucleus of their relationship and stimulus of their revolutionary dream, but conversely, this nucleus is their humanistic dream (on the level of their feelings). Michel’s alternative (existentialist) sensibility when applied privately – to loving Patricia, and understood by her as his love for her – becomes psychologically a revolutionary dream. Can it be that this turned-over “construction” of their love makes this couple a genuinely revolutionary (revolutionary in an authentic sense, when “radicalism” is that of the very psychological sensitivity, not ideological dogma).

The issue of revolutionary dream (in a sense of a revolutionary inspiration, not in a doctrinal sense) becomes in Michel/Patricia relationship the very genuineness, the very depth of their love. In philistine couples, on the other hand, the content of their dream is determined by the tautological content of their love. A genuine revolutionary dream (for example, a humanistically democratic dream) is a very difficult to approach and to nurture – it is always “not from this world”, like genuine love. Both resist verification and naïve – symbiotic belief. This kind of dream Patricia wasn’t able to completely psychologically co-create/incarnate for herself and for Michel, she still needed proof, still needed to put him through ordeal. In comparison with Michel she carried in her soul a heavy load of philistinism (consisting of conformism, indifference to otherness and materialistic dream). For this reason she was able to keep getting help with her career from her friend – licensed journalist – she was able to swallow the “refined vulgarity” of this “establishment democrat”. With Michel she couldn’t resist putting him through the ordeal of having to prove his love. Of course, he passed the ordeal only too well. His death at the hands of the police became the proof Patricia is left with – the proof of his love at the price of his life. The revolutionary dream flew out of their love as a butterfly – from chrysalis and became a matter of (immaterial) pathos, while their love became Michel’s fresh corpse.