… or at least I thought so.
I lost my nouvelle vague virginity to Truffaut’s Jules et Jim, and boy, was it a fantastic first time. After seeing that film, I was excited for the medium of film. Never mind that the film was over 40 years old at that time, I’d seen something that in its cinematic language was radical and fresh and lightyears away from tropes as old as the mountains. Probably some of that was a cinematophile’s crush on a young Jeanne Moreau (and who better to have a crush on than her?), but a lot of it was Truffaut’s way of making the material become incandescent through making it new. Even now, just thinking about the film makes me want to rewatch it – and if I could go back to being a teenager, be assured that a Jules et Jim poster would adorn my bedroom wall.
In the meantime I’ve seen a couple of films that are attributed, more or less loosely, to the nouvelle vague, from precursors like Bob le Flambeur and Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, to Truffaut’s Les 400 coups and Tirez sur le pianiste. Yes, Truffaut’s a constant, mainly because I was hoping to find something that would leave me as amazed as his seminal love triangle. Bob didn’t do much for me (for a heist film it’s disappointingly tame and lacking in memorable scenes – or perhaps I’m just too much into Soderbergh and compare every heist flick to Ocean’s 11), and both Truffauts mentioned above were good enough though somewhat underwhelming. Ascenseur, Malle’s first feature, worked well enough, but that is due in no small part to Miles Davis’ soundtrack, bringing out the sadness beneath the cool, and to Jeanne Moreau walking Paris in the rain for what feels like an eternity.
While nothing had lived up to that first time, I thought I was ready to graduate to Jean-Luc Godard. The signs were in my favour: here’s a French director whose name recalls both my mother’s maiden name (don’t ask me why this would be a good sign, but I thought it was) and my favourite Starfleet captain. (Somehow I think that if Godard had founded a society, it would have had a big sign at the entrance: “No geeks!”) It had gorgeous black and white photography and a cute-in-that-French-way-although-she’s-American Jean Seberg.
Here’s an admission: if a film’s main character is a dick, I will have to work twice as hard to like it. If the protagonist is a sexist dick, it becomes three times as hard. And if he’s behaving like an adolescent ass, four times.
Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Michel in A bout de souffle is all of that. He’s full of himself, he’s a blowhard, he’s a revolutionary in his head but a reactionary in his gut. He’s a git with an inflated sense of entitlement. In effect, in all but physical age he’s a teenager. Which would be okay, but the film seems to buy into him completely. The film seems to think that Michel is cool, revolutionary, a breath of fresh air. Cocky arrogance, that’s okay, that I can deal with – but Godard’s film seems so infatuated with its central character it becomes difficult for me not to transfer my intense, immediate dislike for him to A bout de souffle.
Stylistically Godard’s movie is interesting, and there are individual scenes that work well for me. All in all, I think I would have loved it as a 10-minute short. As a 90-minute feature, though, it feels at least two hours too long. Thing is, you can find a number of parallels between Truffaut’s film and Godard’s, and between its central characters. Catherine and Michel are both amoral, they’re both self-centred, and they get what they want at the expense of others. They’re both willful and capricious and narcissistic. They’re both adolescents in their emotions and actions, and both films ask us – at least up to a point – to forgive their actions. With one big difference: for everything horrible she inflics on the two men in her life, I can forgive Catherine. Michel, on the other hand, I want to punch in the nose, repeatedly.
I guess it’s like Vincent Vega said: “My theory is that when it comes to important subjects, there’s only two ways a person can answer. For example, there’s two kinds of people in this world, Elvis people and Beatles people. Now Beatles people can like Elvis. And Elvis people can like the Beatles. But nobody likes them both equally. Somewhere you have to make a choice. And that choice tells me who you are.”