Imitation and Masquerade in Breathless

I often choose what I wear based on what I see in films. And after seeing Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960) again very recently, I realized in part why the film is so seductive. Indeed, a casual search online will bring up several websites, blogs and articles about the film, especially in regards to the clothing worn by the two main characters played by Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg. On a formal level, Breathless is a film that calls attention to its own construction. However the characters are self-conscious as well, especially about their appearances. Part of the pleasure derived from the film is simply watching Michel (Belmondo) and Patricia (Seberg). And, interestingly, while viewers may be thinking of ways to pull off the look they see onscreen, they can find reassurance in the characters’ own desperate need to look a certain way. Namely, there’s Michel who imitates Humphrey Bogart’s onscreen mannerisms, and his swagger also appears borrowed from something you’d see in a Hollywood film. Then there’s Patricia, who changes clothes often in the film, and chooses to wear a stunning striped dress and white gloves to a rather pretentious press conference. I would like to explore this idea of imitation in the film, reflected in the characters’ self-conscious behavior, a self-consciousness that can be read through clothing.

The film begins with the protagonist Michel stealing a car and eventually killing a policeman. Now a wanted criminal, Michel still needs to get money owed to him so he can run away to Italy. He tries to get Patricia Franchini, a journalism student at the Sorbonne, to go along with him, but she’s reluctant to give up her independence. In the end, Patricia gives Michel away to the police. As he tries to run away, police shoot him dead in the street.

Michel can be viewed as a kind of idealist with romantic ideas about crime. And yes, he’s a liar, car thief and a cop-killer, but he does adhere to a certain code. “Between grief and nothing I take grief,” wrote William Faulkner, but Michel significantly chooses “nothing” because for him grief is a compromise. He’s an all or nothing kind of guy. It’s appropriate then that Michel models himself after Humphrey Bogart, whose screen persona typifies him as a tough guy with principles. Throughout the film Michel repeats this gesture of stroking his lips with his thumb, in imitation of Bogart’s onscreen mannerisms.

The film opens with a closeup of Michel wearing a dark-colored fedora, a tweed herringbone jacket with white shirt and tie. The brim of his hat has been turned down, creating a slight shadow over his eyes, making him appear mysterious and just a little dangerous. A cigarette dangles from his lips, but then he removes it from his mouth and does his Bogart imitation. Michel does this little performance just before stealing a car. It’s a though he’s trying to get into character, and Bogart’s gesture acts as a kind of good-luck charm. The film’s signature jazz-tinged motif plays in the background. Jazz-music, in the late 1950s, was code for youth rebellion and sex, among other illicit things. Jazz, Bogart, Hollywood crime films and westerns, these are the American traditions worshipped in the film. Godard, a journalist for Cahiers du Cinéma, along with the film’s screenwriter François Truffaut, was an admirer of Hollywood cinema. The fact that French director Jean-Pierre Melville makes a cameo appearance in the film, as the writer Parvulesco is also significant. Melville’s own films were modeled after the American gangster/crime film formula, including 1956’s Bob le flambeur and later Le Doulos in 1962 with Belmondo, among others.

Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless

Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) in the opening sequence of Breathless.

Breathless is a film about appearances, and Michel’s is modeled after what he sees in the movies. In a well-known scene in the film, Michel stands in front of a movie theater admiring the poster and lobby cards for The Harder They Fall (from 1956, Bogart’s last film). Michel mutters adoringly, “Bogey”. What follows is a close-up of Bogart’s headshot in the window, and a cut back to Michel’s face. Ritual-like, Michel performs the gesture of his screen idol, never taking his eyes off the photo. In the headshot, Bogart is dressed in black jacket and black bowtie, and he is significantly older looking with deep wrinkles around his eyes and forehead, looking exceptionally weary even for Bogart. This is a characteristic Bogart image; it communicates his elegant-yet-tough demeanor.

Jean-Paul Belmondo The Harder They Fall

Michel stands before the film poster for The Harder They Fall (1956).

Appearance-wise, cutting back and forth between Michel and the Bogart image emphasizes the disparity between the two. Bogart is always suave, yet Michel is the furthest thing from it. Michel wears a light brown or beige jacket, underneath a white shirt with dark pinstripes, paired with a hound’s-tooth tie. He also sports a fedora, essential noir attire, and a cigarette dangles from his lips, echoing the movie poster. But there’s something else besides the fedora and gesticulation that unite the two men. It’s significant that Belmondo, like Bogart, is not conventionally good-looking, yet both stars are undeniably charismatic.

Humphrey Bogart The Harder They Fall

Bogart headshot.

Jean Paul Belmondo in Breathless

A reverse shot of Michel looking at Bogart. Does he see some of himself in the Hollywood star?

By cutting back and forth between the Bogart image and Michel, Godard plays on the film viewer’s knowledge of Hollywood cinema and Bogart’s persona. By placing such emphasis on cinema (the ritual that is movie-going, the film stars not unlike religious icons) and by setting up an affinity between Michel/Belmondo and Bogart, Godard exposes the construction, the deliberate artifice and imitative nature of his film.

Michel wears dark glasses for a good chunk of the film, but these do more than protect his eyes from the sun. He wears them indoors just as much as out, even at night. Significantly, he takes them off when he’s looking at Bogart, perhaps out of reverential respect for the icon. Sunglasses act as a shield, and make it easier to lie since they obscure the view of the eyes. Michel the liar wears them, naturally. Patricia puts them on when she’s probed by the police. Furthermore, wearing sunglasses suggests insincerity.

Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless

Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo

Patricia (Jean Seberg) and Michel: insincere lovers.

Patricia’s look is characteristic of the gamine, a less overtly sexy yet ultra feminine look, pulled off by more petite actresses of the time (think Audrey Hepburn). This look was popular in the 1950s to mid 1960s, and was a refreshing alternative to the sweater-girl image as embodied by Marilyn Monroe, or say her French equivalent Brigitte Bardot. In French, gamine means girl, specifically a young, mischevious girl, so the look is meant to bring to mind the body of a girl without curves, resulting in a less “womanly” silhouette.

It’s interesting that Patricia makes her first appearance in a uniform-like outfit: a New York Herald Tribune t-shirt, skinny black pants, and flats. The t-shirt is worn by another girl working there with her, reinforcing its unspectacular nature. Patricia’s sexuality is understated. She changes outfits several times throughout the film, showing a penchant for stripes (two shirts and a dress). In fact, except for the stunning New Look inspired striped dress Patricia wears near the end of the film, her wardrobe is rather Bohemian influenced.

Jean Seberg Breathless New York Herald Tribune

Jean Seberg Breathless stripes

Jean Seberg Breathless stripes

As I mentioned earlier, Breathless is a film about appearances. Michel and Patricia are often shown admiring their reflections, tweaking their clothes or hair to perfect their look. Indeed, the characters are always in the midst of getting dressed, looking at themselves in the mirror, or looking at each other. Michel mirrors his attitude and look after Bogart; Patricia is preoccupied with how she is perceived by others. This is a continuation of the film’s preoccupation with masquerade, with playing a part. Indeed, in one scene Patricia asks Michel if the sitter in Renoir’s Mademoiselle Irène Cahen d’Anvers is prettier than she. Actually, they two share an uncanny resemblance.

Jean Seberg Breathless Renoir

Renoir’s Mlle. Irène Cahen d’Anvers: one of the many art prints in Patricia’s apartment.

Patricia’s striped dress, for me, is perhaps the single most memorable image in the film. The dress is New-Look inspired and may or may not be a Dior design (they only drive by the Dior boutique after all). Unfortunately there’s no costume or wardrobe credit in the film, so the dress may have come from Seberg’s closet. It’s a short-sleeved dress with a large rounded collar, buttons down along the front of the torso, and a belted waist. Patricia also wears it with white gloves and white stilettos. She purchases the dress it seems so she can have something sharp to wear to the press conference at Orly. At the conference, Patricia appears shy and inexperienced. She also stands out among the other journalists who are dressed in solid, neutral tones. After being ignored a few times by the writer Parvulesco, Patricia’s question is finally heard. She asks him if he thinks women have a role to play in modern society. The author responds, “Yes, if she’s pretty, wears a striped dress and sunglasses.” Patricia only responds with a shy smile, perhaps flattered that he’s flirting with her.

Jean Seberg Breathless striped dress

Jean Seberg Breathless striped dress

Patricia wears the striped dress for the rest of the film, looking fabulous as she tags along with Michel. But she’s also wearing the dress when she betrays him. Patricia is an unfortunate product of her time. The late 1950s only saw the first stirrings of second wave feminism. Perhaps her character’s penchant for stripes is meant to reflect her dual nature, her confusion about her own role in society. Patricia is educated and seeks independence, yet she is trapped by her own self-consciousness. A preoccupation, I might add, shared by Michel.

Screenshots taken from:
À bout de souffle [Breathless]. Dir. Jean-Luc Godard. 1960. Criterion Collection, 2007. DVD.



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