Film Analysis I – “My Cars are Made to Run, Not Stop”: The Lyrical style in Godard’s Breathless

Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (France, 1960) represents the rebellion that Cahiers de Cinema in France practiced as a way of establishing a new kind of film. This movement abandoned the traditional ways to film and edit as a way of rebelling against the confines of society.  The movement also eventually escalated and redefining film was used as a way to create political messages (11/24 slides).  In one of the first scenes in the film when Michel is driving, Godard uses diegetic music, direct address, fade out and jump cuts to create a lyrical style that keeps the story moving and engages its audience in an unusual but, creative way.

The mise-en-scene illustrates the whole tone of the movie—we are going to go on a trip with Michel from start to finish, or life to death. The diegetic and non-diegetic music in the whole film is an up-tempo jazz. This sound is diegetic music in the car scene that exemplifies driving fast, and the excitement of being on an open road. First, Michel is singing his own song, and we have 5 consecutive jump cuts while he says his lover’s name—Patricia . They seem to be of the same road but at different points, but it moves his road trip along and the audience is on its toes. The cuts are easy to follow along with because we never lose the trees or the open road. The music starts by Michel turning on the radio, and we hear the different stations as he searches until he gets the jazz music which is what moves the trip along and is very light and pleasant to watch.

At one point on the trip after the jump cuts, Michel addresses the camera which is also characteristic of French New Wave. The direct address puts the viewer into the film, instead of on the outside of the action. When he says “If you don’t like France…get stuffed” it’s as if he’s insulting us, though playfully. First, there are 5 jump cuts, it’s a long take of the road and the trees on the side of the road. Then, we get a quick glimpse of the car whizzing by, then we’re back inside and he addresses us. The point of this kind of editing is to play with perspective. We switch perspectives but, yet never question that we are on the road with him. This is how the lyrical flow works, while giving the appearance of changing things up, but this is simply done by editing and camera work. When we are inside the car with Michel, the camera will bounce with the car, we see the car hood, and we’ll just follow Michel.

When he sees women, on the side of the road, he also uses direct address to call our attention to them. The camera then pans to the side of the road as he slows down and passes them by to get a look. Keeping in rhythm with his carefree attitude, he calls them dogs and does not pick them up. The camera then moves from looking at him, to then him reaching into the glove compartment and focusing on him taking out a gun. We see out the windshield and he points the gun and imitates its going off saying “pah pah pah. He passes by more trees and says he wants to shoot out the sunshine as he actually shoots the gun and it makes a large bang sound.

All the while we are in the car driving now behind slower cars. This time, we have a more backseat glance so we can see him and the road, fitting more in the frame. This is when he says women driving is cowardice personified. He then says referring to an automaker that “as old man Bugatti said my cars are made to run not stop.” This could be viewed as a play on the quick motion of this scene, and humorously foreshadow his getting stopped by the cops. Now we go even faster. He cuts a car off, and the cop sirens start and they follow him in motorcycles, for 2 more jump cuts . He pulls over and tries to lose them but one spots Michel and approaches him. In a medium shot, Michel bends over into the car and pulls out a gun. We get an extreme close up of Michel’s arm, then his gun and he shoots the cop. It cuts to the cop falling into the trees. The jazz music gets more suspenseful with some emphasized high notes. Michel runs away in a long shot showing mostly trees and he is a small figure on the screen. As he runs away the camera pans left and eventually fades out into blackness.

This up-tempo slows down a bit when he is pulled over but then as soon as he shoots the fun, the flow is sped back up. When he is running away, the music and the fade transition us to what will happen next. As homage to ganger films, the criminal dies at the end, but Michel never loses his cool attitude. He dies after running, falling and saying“It is a scumbag” and another fade takes place. This film never really slows down nor does it explain itself. It just records action and tries to speed up time. For me what also makes it so defiant of rigid guidelines, is how in Patricia’s bedroom time stops for a little while and there is so much dialog and focus on the couple that it doesn’t follow a formulaic rhythm the whole way through. This film is representative of how early Godard was experimenting different techniques.

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7 Responses to Film Analysis I – “My Cars are Made to Run, Not Stop”: The Lyrical style in Godard’s Breathless

  1. Amy Herzog says:

    Arggg! This is such a great project– but it was due before the midterm!! I can’t give you credit for this as an analysis project when it is posted so many weeks late, without having discussed this with me in person. I will give you credit for an extra post, but this is a shame given the quality of your work….

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