Ramona Fotiade explores the making of Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle and some of the technical aspects that made it such a landmark in cinema history.
Hailed as the manifesto of the New Wave even before its general release in March 1960, and compared by some with Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane for its revolutionary visual style, À bout de souffle marked a radical break away from the codes of classical narration and continuity editing. Among the most innovative authorial features in Jean-Luc Godard’s debut feature, cinematography and the use of real locations have often been associated with the new style of filmmaking that has since influenced several generations of independent directors on both sides of the Atlantic.
‘If we used a hand-held camera, it was simply for speed’ – Godard declared in an interview two years after the premiere of À bout de souffle. ‘I couldn’t afford to use the usual equipment, which would have added three weeks to the shooting’ . Nevertheless, the spontaneity and raw, documentary feel that came with shooting in real locations, and relying mostly on natural light was something that the aspiring filmmaker deliberately, even obstinately, pursued. Although he initially resented the producer’s imposition of Raoul Coutard as the director of photography, Godard warmed to the idea when he realised Coutard had no objection to shooting the film in the manner of a reportage.As it turned out, Coutard was ideally suited for identifying the split-second detail that captured reality on the run. He had built his reputation working as a war photographer in Indo-China, and later as Pierre Schoendoerffer’s cameraman in difficult regions such as Vietnam and Afghanistan, during the 1950s. Most importantly, given his background, Coutard had first-hand experience of the most light sensitive of stocks, such as the Ilford HPS, which only existed for still photography, and which Godard decided, against all odds, to use for the shooting of À bout de souffle. Despite the numerous technical difficulties involved in developing the film stock in a photographic, phenidon-based emulsion,the bet paid off and the image of Godard’s first feature went down in film history as an example of directorial ingenuity and prowess. However one may choose to look at it in retrospect, the analogy owed less to an unpredictable turn of events, and more to a calculated effect, given the intended reference to Welles’s celebrated directorial debut that looms large over the title score and the first shot in À bout de souffle.
According to Pierre Braunberger, ‘the New Wave would have never existed without [the Ilford HPS] ultra-sensitive film stock which opened the possibility of shooting in natural surroundings and with less light’. Godard, it must be said, used Gevaert 36 film stock for day shooting, with the same nonchalant self-assurance that was to earn him the unenviable reputation of a dilettante during the three weeks of production, before catapulting him to instantaneous fame soon after the film’s release. What others perceived at first as random experimentation and technical blunders corresponded in fact to a deliberate and carefully thought-out subversion of established filming practices. From a sociological point of view, Godard’s series of arbitrary decisions (such as interrupting the shooting on the first day when he runs out of ideas, according to Coutard’s recollection), firmly establishes his autonomy as an artist in a manner that also manages ‘to straddle the contradiction specific to the field of cinema, between cultural legitimacy and cinematographic technicity’.
Having to keep costs down and work fast was certainly an incentive for innovation, but the manner in which Godard set out to overcome existing limitations reveals as much, if not more, about his strategy of aesthetic provocation than about his financial concerns. Writing to Braunberger about the crew’s reaction to the rushes of À bout de souffle, Godard admittedly defends his unorthodox approach to filming on grounds of implied cost-efficiency and speed:
At the rushes, the entire crew, including the cameraman, thought the photography was revolting. Personally I like it. What’s important is not that things should be filmed in any particular way, but simply that they should be filmed and be properly in focus.
Godard’s further remarks, however, bring into view his differently motivated decision to go against technical parameters and test the endurance of the medium, by pushing it to its limits and thus pointing to the materiality of the cinematic image itself, in unequivocal postmodern fashion:
On Wednesday we shot a scene in full sunlight using Geva 36 film stock. They all think it stinks. My view is that it’s fairly amazing. It’s the first time that the maximum has been expected from film stock by making it do something it was never intended for. It’s as if it was suffering from being pushed to the limit of its possibilities.
Stripped of its conventional transparency, the cinematography acquires meta-narrative signifying status in À bout de souffle, along with the soundtrack, the editing and the dialogues, within a second-degree mock thriller fable about the end of filmic conventions. ■
Ramona Fotiade is Senior Lecturer in French at the University of Glasgow. She has written widely on Surrealist and experimental cinema and is the author of the new book, À Bout De Souffle: French Film Guide.
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 Jean-Luc Godard, interview published in the special Nouvelle Vague issue of Cahiers du cinéma nr. 138, December 1962; quoted in English in Tom Milne (ed.), Godard on Godard, op. cit., p. 173.
 Colin MacCabe, Godard. A Portrait of the Artist at 70, London: Bloomsbury, 2003, p. 115.
Raoul Coutard, ‘La Forme du jour’, in Nouvel Observateur 22 Septembre 1965, p. 36.
Michel Marie, À bout de souffle. Jean-Luc Godard, op. cit., pp. 206-7.
Frank Beau, ‘L’autodafé du carton-pâte’, in Cahiers du cinéma special issue hors série ‘Nouvelle Vague, une légende en question’, 1998, p. 52.
Philippe Mary, ‘Cinematic Microcosm and Cultural Cosmologies – Elements of a Sociology of the New Wave’, in Cinema Journal, vol. 49, n° 4, Summer 2010, p. 164.
Pierre Braunberger, Cinémamémoire op. cit., p. 183; quoted in English in Susan Hayward and Ginette Vincendeau (eds.), French Film. Texts and Contexts, op. cit., pp. 205-206.
Ibid., p. 184; quoted in English in Susan Hayward and Ginette Vincendeau (eds.), French Film. Texts and Contexts, op. cit., p. 206.