JEAN SEBERG IN “BREATHLESS”: AMERICA AND YOUTH CULTURE IN POSTWAR FRANCE

Joel Schulz June 3, 2014 0

by Sheena Manabat – Undergraduate, University of Calgary

 

Moi, je ne crois pas, du reste, que le cinéma influence la jeunesse. Ce qu’il faut essayer, c’est que ce soit plutôt la jeunesse qui influence le cinéma, c’est-à-dire de rester plein d’envies.

I do not believe, however, that cinema influences youth. Instead, it is rather the youth influencing cinema, that is to say, staying full of desires. (Rough translation)

– Jean Luc-Godard, 1960[1]

 

At the time of its release in 1960, Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless was touted as both “artificial and manipulative” by its detractors and championed as “a modern universe…full of beauty” by enthusiasts (Douchet, 157). These opposing views of the film are in response to Godard’s playful stylistic experimentation with discontinuous editing throughout the film, exemplified by his use of the jump cut. Seen as one of the quintessential French New Wave films, its formal construction as well as its characters and content can be said to reflect the historicity of postwar youth culture. The pastiche of cultural forms embedded in the film such as fashion, music and literature not only celebrate France’s newfound modern youth culture in a reworking of old forms, but also appeal to modern sensibilities. In particular, Jean Seberg as pseudo femme fatale Patricia Franchini embodies the vitality and uncertainty of this culture.

The uncertainty of postwar France was certainly due to the “real sense of urgency to rebuild every facet of French life” (Neupert, 5) including cultural images. The French New Wave, parallel to other elements of French society attempted this rebuilding, evident in Godard’s Breathless. The inclusion of Seberg allowed Godard to breath new life into his film with Patricia Franchini and “her closely cropped hair, blonde and perfectly sculpted” which was “chic and modern, novelty and iconic all at the same time” (Useda, 24). In the late 1950s, Paris attempted to regain its central position in the fashion industry and Franchini as a fashionable young American student with disposable income no doubt complements the freedom and vitality of the consumerism at the time.

Franchini’s relationship with Jean-Paul Belmondo’s character Michel Poiccard also displays the new, unconventional relationships emerging in France. Poiccard and Franchini are lovers and the film depicts their leisure time smoking and discussing culture. The films’ focus on mundane youth life echo the reality in Postwar France, where a youth subculture was emerging, distinctly different than previous generations (Neupert, 14). Patricia Franchini is not only important as an embodiment of youth culture, but is instrumental for thinking about American cinema and its influence on the French New Wave.

As a nation recovering from the devastations of World War II, France entered a period of drastic economic and social changes. These transformations included the gradual shift in the demographics of postwar cinema viewing audiences, which had become smaller and more elite (Neupert, 7).  France had begun to learn that their films must be tailored to a more fragmented specific audience because the era of a mass, generalized family audience was ending. The largest audience demographic for films at the time remained fifteen to twenty-four year olds (Neupert, 11). However, attendance and demand for films shifted towards an increasingly selective audience with similar socioeconomic statuses. René Bonnell explains that, “higher than average income, a privileged professional background, and solid education increase one’s attendance” and “even the attendance of young people fit these traits” (55). By the 1950s this new generation of young French people were believed to be distinctly different than children and adults, living radically new lifestyles. Thus, the perceived existence of a youth culture and their differences “helped fuel a widespread fascination with all things young and new” (Neupert, 15).

Patricia Franchini’s youthful appeal is apparent; at twenty she is neither a fully-grown woman nor child and is attending Paris’ prestigious Sorbonne University. Currently living in a hotel while receiving funds from her parents and working for the New York Herald Tribune, Franchini was without a doubt part of the privileged cinema viewing elite. Her status as belonging to the new, young urban intellectuals was indicative of the changing times. France in the 1950s experienced an accelerated growth of colleges and Universities (Neupert, 18) and in the thirty years following the war the rural population halved; Paris went from one tenth of the population of France to one fifth (Gaffney and Holmes, 11). The growth in attendance of post-secondary institutions as well as the increasing urbanization allowed for an influx of young persons into cities whose leisure time could be devoted to the cinema.

Likewise, in the United States, the young person was garnering widespread attention with the introduction of the term “teenage” in 1945 (Neupert, 15). Jon Savage explores the term and how it came into being with major publications such as The New York Times and Vogue magazine, labeling the new youth culture “teen-age”. Notably, The New York Times article of 1945 was entitled, “Teen-Agers Are an American Invention” (Savage, 462) and defined them as persons who are unprepared for the seriousness of adulthood and absorbed in frivolous matter of youth culture. Moreover, Savage indicates that interpretations of youth culture in the United States were reduced to one: “the adolescent consumer” (465). The idea of the “adolescent consumer” certainly parallels Bonnell’s description of traits shared by the new French audiences whose disposable income was well invested in the cinema.

In fact, the first phase of mass consumer society in France was during the postwar years of 1944 to 1968. Rebecca Pulju indicates that this phase was remarkable for being the period in which French society “confronted the changes mass consumption would entail in lifestyles, tastes, and values” (23). Postwar, the spread of a mass consumption economy was spearheaded by the United States, whose culture swept through Europe following the German surrender of May 1945 (Savage, 461). The United States was a symbol of freedom and modernity that France could aspire to while being wary of the results of Americanization. After all, these changes in France were accompanied by a weakened currency, inflation and massive dependence on the Unites States for aid. French identity was also threatened by the massive influx of American cultural goods and the accompanying values that they implied. For all of Western Europe, France included, “the US represented everything that was both glamorous and missing from a world of postwar gloom” (Gaffney and Holmes, 13).

As an American in Paris, Seberg as Patricia Franchini represents postwar France’s fascination and uneasiness with America. Fiona Handyside examines Seberg’s star image and why it came to have such resonance within a French cinematic production and reception context.  Seberg plays the role of the young American woman in French film culture, a “role that stresses, intercultural exchange, border-crossing and the powerful intersection of gender and nationality in determining identity” and “suggests something more general about how the American female star’s image functions in France” (Handyside, 166). Seberg represents modernity, a modernity linked to freedom and mobility afforded by her nationality and youth. Handyside asserts that this is exactly why she was much more popular in France as an import than as a local at home in America. American writer Stanley Kauffmann reveals that Seberg was chosen by Godard primarily because of her personal quality rather than her actress quality (20); Seberg was seen by Godard as continuing her roles from her Preminger films (Handyside, 165). Further, as a ‘star’, Seberg herself is commoditized as part of consumer society, which soaks in cultural forms such as music and film, especially by the youths who are apt to consume them. Handyside explains that “with her dark sunglasses, cropped hair, and knowing sexuality”, Franchini “seems the epitome of Americanized modernity, smoking her Chesterfields and being driven through the Parisian streets in a Thunderbird to the soundtrack of cool jazz” (167).

The intercultural exchange between France and America is played out in the film through Patricia Franchini’s relationship with Jean-Paul Belmondo’s character Michel Poiccard, a fugitive who decides to go to Paris and ask Franchini to run away with him to Italy. Guy Johnson discusses Patricia Franchini as the “American Friend” who, unlike our French protagonist, is ultimately left intact and unscathed, “dangerously powerful” behind her “innocuous guise of freely exhibiting the freedom to choose, always naive of the seen and unseen ramifications of such freedom” (11). Her power and freedom culminate in Poiccard’s death as she decides to give him up to the police and as Handyside asserts, she escapes being decoded by the male gaze (Handyside, 169).  In the end, neither Poiccard nor the policeman can label her ‘dégueulasse’ (disgusting) and the film ends with Franchini retaining her independence and subjectivity.

As a young American girl seeing a French man—who coincidentally we find out later on in the film is already married—Patricia and Michel are in a relationship that was not only unconventional for its inter-culturality, but also because it may have not been seen as appropriate in French society. Pulju investigates France’s postwar ideas on couples and marriage, revealing that during the 1950s, the couple’s relationship became more important than ever before and some have asserted that at the time, extramarital relationships were seen as shameful (108-109). Most historians have argued that at the end of World War II, France remained a socially and culturally conservative society (Pulju, 17) and their relationship would be considered socially unacceptable. Adding to the scandal of Patricia’s relationship with the two-bit gangster, she reveals that she might be pregnant by him. Godard portrays Patricia as an independent woman who may be pregnant out of wedlock at a time when ideology still worked to confine women to the private sphere of the home and the domestic (Handyside, 169). Patricia’s freedom in choosing to have an unhealthy relationship with Michel can be seen as echoing the rebellious youth subcultures and films emerging out of the United States and Europe during the 1950s (Biltereyst, 11).

Daniel Biltereyst sees the New Wave drawing inspiration from American “juvenile delinquency movies” in the 1950s, where American values were associated with ideas of cultural and social decline. Films such as Stanley Kramer’s The Wild One and Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause dealt with contemporary social issues in relation to young people (Biltereyst, 24). While Breathless may not be entirely juvenile nor totally associate American values with cultural and social decline, its hero is a delinquent and the film was decidedly contemporary.  In his review of the film for Cahiers du Cinema in 1960, Luc Moullet states that Michel and Patricia are “disconcerted by the disorder of our times and by the constant moral and physical accretions and changes that are totally specific to the age we live in” (222). This disorder bleeds into Godard’s structure of the film where jump cuts alter our experience of time and disrupt the unity of the images. As Georges Sadoul notes, “no experienced editor could watch Breathless without trepidation: every other continuity shot is wrong” (157). Godard shot and edited his film in an entirely new way, answering France’s call for a new cinema. In “The New Republic,” Kauffman complements the sentiments of Postwar France’s rebuilding when he writes in 1961 that Breathless says, “if we concentrate on hoping for a revival of the past, we will all drown” (20).

Breathless’ musings on France’s newfound modernity and consumerism can be linked to America and its general influence on the New Wave. The consumption of traditional American films from Hollywood proliferated following the war when the ban on films was lifted (Neupert, 7). Young and obsessed cinephiles such as the Godard and other Cahiers critics would probably have been part of those audiences who devoured such films. Hollywood thus informed and influenced their filmmaking, allowing them to play with the conventions of American cinema. French critic Luc Moullet identifies that Godard even explicitly pays tribute to the old Hollywood studio Monogram Pictures, formerly Allied Artists, “the most commercial form of American Cinema” (221).  Like Jacques Demy’s Umbrellas of Cherbourg or Francois Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player, Godard constructs Breathless on conventions and remnants of American Hollywood cinema. Guy Johnson sees Breathless as having elements of both genres of the western and film noir. The film has a “western mythic structure” with its “solipsistic hero, a male outsider beyond the law but somehow connected to an idea of goodness” who has permeated into the film noir genre “in which the ambiguous sexuality and fierce individualism combine in the figure of Humphrey Bogart” (Johnson, 10). With Michel as a French wannabe Bogart and Patricia as a pseudo femme fatale, the film succeeds in its homage to American film.

The circumstances following World War II allowed America’s influence to be felt throughout Western Europe and France. In hindsight, the drastic socioeconomic transformations in post-war France created a shift in the demographics of filmgoers to those who were more privileged. The youth remained the largest demographic for films postwar emerged to be distinct from previous generations. France became wary of the influence of American consumerism and the idea of the teenager on French identity. Patricia Franchini embodies this youthful American consumer, free from constraints and modern in look and lifestyle. Her unconventional relationship with Michel Poiccard is symbolic of France’s uneasy relationship with America. Breathless, like other films of the French New Wave, drew inspiration from Hollywood, melding the old with the new and reworking traditional genres in the process. Owing to Seberg’s stardom as an American woman in France and her youthful image mirrored by the French New Wave genre, Patricia remains a muse for both film and fashion (Sight and Sound, 7). Since Breathless continues to be Godard’s most frequently watched and most influential film (Sterritt), contemporary audiences are still able to investigate the influence of American culture and values that dominate our movie screens.



[1] Jean-Luc Godard in Cannes on the Subject of “Breathless” Prod. Institut National De L’Audiovisuel. Perf. Jean-Luc Godard. Ina.fr. Institut National De L’Audiovisuel, n.d. 1960. Web. 26 Nov. 2012.

 

Works Cited

“Breath of Fresh Air.” 2010, Sight and Sound, 20, 7-7. Proquest. Wed. 12 Nov. 2012

Biltereyst, Daniel. “The Cross-Cultural Reception and Censorship of The Wild One, Blackboard Jungle, and Rebel Without a Cause.” Youth Culture in Global Cinema. Ed. Timothy Shary and Alexandra Seibel. Austin: University of Texas, 2007. 9-26. Print.

Bonnell, René, Le Cinéma Exploité. Paris: Seuil. 1978. 55. Print.

Gaffney, John, and Diana Holmes. “Stardom in Theory and Context.” Stardom in Postwar France. Ed. John Gaffney and Diana Holmes. New York: Berghahn, 2007. 7-25. Print.

Handyside, Fiona. “Stardom And Nationality: The Strange Case Of Jean Seberg.” Studies In French Cinema 2.3 (2002): 165. Academic Search Complete. Web. 12 Nov. 2012.

Johnson, Guy. “Negotiating the American: “Au Bout De Souffle” and “The American Friend.”Spectator: The University of Southern California Journal of Film & Television 9.1 (1988): 8-15. EBSCO. Web. 13 Nov. 2012.

Kauffmann, Stanley. “Adventures Of An Anti-Hero.” New Republic 144.7 (1961): 20-21. Film & Television Literature Index with Full Text. Web. 15 Nov. 2012.

Moullet, Luc. “Jean-Luc Godard.” The French New Wave: Critical Landmarks. Ed. Peter John Graham and Ginette Vincendeau. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. 221-28. Print.

Neupert, Richard John. A History of the French New Wave Cinema. 2nd ed. Madison: University of Wisconsin, 2002. Print.

Pulju, Rebecca. Women and Mass Consumer Society in Postwar France. England: Cambridge UP, 2011. Print.

Sadoul, Georges. “Rebel Without A Cause?” 1960. French New Wave. By Jean Douchet. New York: D.A.P. in Association with Éditions Hazan/Cinémathèque Française, 1999. 157-58. Print.

Savage, Jon. Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture. New York: Viking, 2007. Print.

Sterritt, David. “40 Years Ago, `Breathless‘ Was Hyperactive Anarchy. Now It’s Part Of The Canon.” Chronicle Of Higher Education 46.31 (2000): B7. Academic Search Elite. Web. 14 Nov. 2012.

Usuda, Kohei. “The High Solitude Of A Rare Bird.” Cineaction 75 (2008): 24-27. Film & Television Literature Index with Full Text. Web. 13 Nov. 2012.

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