DM Haight

The opening scenes of film noirs are crucial,  giving us the limited information we need to captivate and drag us along throughout the film. Setting the atmosphere, the tone, the feel, the tangible features of the opening scene are the ones that define the film noir. In the opening scene of The Maltese Falcon the camera scans a city, the title “San Francisco” floats over the streets and buildings, closing the gap between fantasy and reality. The film sets us in an obvious and tangible location, then sets us in front of a directory, laying down who and what we intend to visit. The detective’s office lets us know this will indeed be a nitty-gritty noir. A girl leaving, fixing her stocking; a man kisses her hand, saying, “Bye bye, honey. I’ll see you later.” The sleaze comes with ease in these types of films, and no matter how good the intentions of the main characters, they all end up in a bed, or in a hotel, either laying back with a cigarette and a smirk, or  mouth agape on the floor in a pool of blood. The opening scene of the noir reveals nothing, and everything.

The same is true with Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960). The opening scene begins with a few notes of a piano, leading into our main character, Michel, reading a newspaper, a young woman on the back of the paper holding a doll is dressed in next to nothing. He says, “After all, I’m an asshole. After all, yes, I’ve got to. I’ve got to!” This opening sets up, in under a minute, the tone of the film, and the type of character the audience is about to follow for the next 90 minutes. Noirs are often dark and leave many with the distrust the characters of the film deserve. Breathless has all the elements: a man on the run, a femme fatale, an ever-closing window to get out of a city. All these characteristics, and many more, represent the blocks that build a dark film, but all of them together create a film noir.

Michel, like Humphrey Bogart, the man he idolizes, is a character steeped in fedoras and cigarettes. Constantly puffing away, he watches the city with a keen eye, waiting for the chance to make money, or take money. Michel nabs a car, then races off, telling his beautiful accomplice she can’t go with him. He drives about the countryside, breaking the fourth wall, talking directly to the audience, making humorous remarks about country girls on the side of the road, telling people to “get stuffed”. This is the break from the noir into something different—a hybrid of sorts. Breathless deviates sporadically and humorously from the tension of the drama and police hunts, relaxing us for a short time. The noir aspects, however, are never far from the humor. Michel finds a gun in the glove compartment and begins to fake-shoot himself in the rearview mirror. The correlation between this act and the final act, where Michel is supposed to be on the run and is gunned down, is the self-destructive nature of the gestures.

It is interesting that a woman leads Michel to stealing the car, culminating in the killing of a police officer. The woman in the beginning of the film is the first femme fatal of the film, and an unsuspecting one at that. She seems innocent, but her actions lead Michel to his inevitable doom. He returns to the city to be with the girl he loves, and having committed the murder of a police officer he finds himself hunted, constantly moving. Even when he is with Patricia, we find ourselves following him across the streets of Paris, looking for his friend, Antonio. The constant movement is counterproductive to Michel. Patricia, early in the film, tells Michel she may be pregnant with his child. He tells her she should have been more careful; but the way they act, the way Michel refuses to leave, the way Patricia emulates the way Michel tosses his cigarette butts out the window, similar to the way Michel emulates Bogart—these are the actions of infatuation. They are in love, and this love is something that is at once good and beautiful, but also destructive and cruel. Every step Michel takes ends up being another step closer to the police, to prison, to death. The revolving conversation between Patricia and Michel at the end film finds Patricia having given Michel’s position away. She is forcing him to run, to leave without her. But because of her he stays. He is on the run, but has nowhere to go.

This hold Patricia has over Michel makes Patricia, like the girl in the beginning of the film, a femme fatale—a feminine character who’s objective is not always that of the man she is with, often resulting in the death of her companions. And Patricia, in the most haphazard of ways, is femme fatale incarnate. She talks to the cops at first, denying everything except that she knew Michel. This tactic has been used multiple times in noirs. Characters deny that they know another, while at the same time saying the opposite. This leads to the police following Patricia, and in turn, actively getting closer to Michel. She runs around with other men, is a foreigner who hardly speaks the language, smokes like a chimney, and sleeps with the main character. Her motives, however, are not like those of film noir, where the woman wants something of the man. In fact, if anything, she tries to rid herself of Michel. As in the bedroom scene Michel points out, “If a girl says everything’s fine then can’t even light her cigarette, it means she’s scared of something.”

And she should be. Her relationship with Michel is what makes her the femme fatale. She is the catalyst that connects him to the police, the one who turns him in. Patricia, like many characters out of noirs, is overly conflicted with her emotions and motivations. She is pulled from one end of the spectrum—say love—to the other end—fear. But those emotions always go hand in hand. This is why Patricia is a great femme fatale, because her conflictions lead to the destruction of that which she loved, that which may or may not have left behind a piece of himself in a physical form within her. She betrays out of fear, and fears to love.

Breathless is almost Shakespearian in the way it is told, in the way its characters interact, the way it twists and turns; friends turn on friends for any number of reasons, money is exchanged or stolen, the love of two characters never matures into anything meaningful—although, like in Shakespeare, we are led to believe it will. Like in Romeo and Juliet, or All’s Well That Ends Well, and even Taming of the Shrew we watch as strange, and often impossible relationships grow into something with fibers and musculatures. Benedict and Beatrice, in All’s Well, loath each other until they are convinced they love each other by tricks and deceit. Romeo and Juliet fall for one another, partly because of hormones, partly because of the forbidden nature of their courting. Kate refuses to be wed to Petruchio, but falls in love with him because of his control over situations, because of his unbendable will. But of course, while two of these plays end pleasantly, one ends tragically. Much like a noir, Romeo and Juliet meet a fatal wall, the title characters killing themselves. In a way, this relates heavily to the romance of Michel and Patricia. They fall in love, but their love tears them to pieces in one way or another. Patricia participates as a lover at first, an accomplice second, and a femme fatale lastly. Much like Juliet, Patricia brings death upon her lover. It was innocent and anyone put in that position with any sense would do what she did. Juliet was pushed into a similar corner, with her family ready to war Romeo’s, and thus she faked her death. Patricia faked the death of her relationship with Michel.

And the death of the relationship is not viewed as upsetting, or unbelievable—one character is a hoodlum, the other is an American girl in Paris. But the lack of interest by police concerning Michel’s death is connected to how Michel reacts to a person being hit by a car earlier in the film. It is a mild interest, nothing more. He does not know the person, nor does he care. He looks upon the body, folds his newspaper, and walks off like nothing happened. The police, upon Michel’s death, stand over him. No one moves or gestures to assist him. They know he did the killing, and they know he is going to die. The only character who cares is Patricia. She covers her face, then drops her hand to reveal a severe lack of expression. Only when Michel contorts his face, a reference to an earlier scene in the film, does she show genuine concern. And when Michel dies, she mimics the way in which he brushed his lips, the act of emulation he performed for Bogart. In this sense, we see how the noir is pressed into the film. Not only is the story laced with classic noir tropes, it is also an homage to the great noirs of the golden age of Hollywood. Michel even stares at a poster of his idol outside a cinema at one point. Michel’s death harkens back to the noirs of the past, a way to pass those noirs on through Patricia. She unwittingly becomes a fatal character, and at the same time one who keeps the past alive. By even performing the motion once, she recreates that which can only be seen in cinemas. By doing so, she keeps her lover’s memory alive, even as he lies dead in the street.

The noir is a film genre that is difficult to describe. It is so much and yet so little, so complex and yet simple. It’s about the darkness of unsavory characters, the belief that there is good in the world, only to discover that good is nothing more than an idea, a fantasy. Breathless shows us that the world of love is indeed a fantasy. Betrayal, even with the best of intentions, is still betrayal. Michel dies, Patricia lives, and the cops get the culprit. But who wins? Surely no one, and yet everyone. Patricia rids herself of Michel, the cops get their man, and Michel finally escapes the prospect of prison. But nothing is resolved. And this is the classic trick of the noir—nothing solved. Questions are left unanswered. Characters are left dead in the street with their lovers hovering over their bodies. A man only escapes his fate through death. Noirs are the intangible film. They give us what we need to keep us guessing, but refuse to give us the answers. Breathless’s power comes from this exchange, this idea of scandalous luring, and asks us to answer for ourselves. Noirs are funny like that. It just takes a keen mind to get the joke.

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