Editing in À bout de souffle (France, 1960)

Taking audience's breath away in 1960

Taking audience’s breath away in 1960

Before reading this post it would be a good idea to watch the film’s opening:

In any concise guides to film history, Jean-Luc Godard’s A bout de souffle (Breathless) is accredited with introducing the jump cut. A jump cut is an obvious discontinuity caused by the editing: if either the background appears to move, and the characters remain in the same position, or vice versa, due to a different position of the camera, there appears to be a jump in the frame.

The jump cut itself is now a stylistic device used in all forms of film, from giving a ‘cool’ look to ‘talking head’ interviews to adding dynamism to montages. It is very difficult for us to imagine how audiences felt when confronted by the film in the early ‘6os; though Godard had used jump cuts in his short (1959) … aka All the Boys Are Called Patrick. However, A bout de souffle still looks different and a close analysis of the first scene might offer some clues to how Godard manages to disorientate his audience (though, obviously, it would be necessary to check out the rest of the film to see if the techniques used here appear elsewhere).

Initially we’ll consider how narrative space is created using eyeline match editing (NB the numbering does not necessarily refer to distinct shots).

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1.    1st shot of Michel after the shot of a newspaper.

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2.    Michel looks rapidly to his left, pauses

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3.    then rubs a thumb over his lips (a la Bogart) as if signalling someone; (emphasising the eyeline match).

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4.    A shot of accomplice but she doesn’t seem to matching Michel’s eyeline because she’s looking to her left

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5.    but immediately turns to her right and the match appears to be complete

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6.    she then looks back to her left and nods quickly (another signal) apparently passing on Michel’s signal; she then looks back toward Michel.

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7.    This is the same as shot 3 and (appears to be) completing the eyeline match.

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8.    Michel then looks to his right and then to his left (apparently he’s looking at whomever the accomplice nodded to) and then right again completing a triangle of narrative space.

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9.    Returns to 6 sealing the relative positions of the accomplice and Michel and she turns back to her left and then nods vigorously just before a cut to

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10.    the victims of the car theft getting out of their vehicle. The relative positions of the three points might look like this:

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11.    The next shot return to Michel, who’s now looking to his left and so he’s also seeing the victims leaving their car; Michel then looks to his right toward the accomplice

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12.    who we see waving Michel over

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13.    BUT the victims are in the same shot (she follows them!)

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14.    Back to Michel, but now in a medium-long shot, however he is still looking toward his right so maintaining the position between him and his accomplice – he nods at her

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15.    Shot of the harbour; this could have functioned as the establishing shot if it had appeared much earlier in the scene.

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16.    This pans left until the accomplice is shown looking over the water

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17.    The pan continues left after a cut to Michel jump-starting the car.

It seems that Godard has followed the patterns of continuity editing but shot 13 is a mistake; or a wilful breaking of the rules. However, if we swap the positions of the car and the accomplice then shot 13 does make sense and we can read the sequence as follows:

1.    1st shot of Michel after the shot of a newspaper.

2.    Michel looks rapidly to his left, pauses

3.    then rubs a thumb over his lips (a la Bogart) as if signalling something.

4.    A shot of accomplice looking to her left so matches his eyeline

5.    but immediately turns to her right as if seeing something.

6.    She then looks back to her left and nods quickly; she then looks back toward what we will see to be the victims.

7.    This is the same as shot 3 and shows Michel looking at the car.

8.    Michel then looks to his right and then to his left and then right again completing a triangle of narrative space.

9.    Returns to 6 sealing the relative positions of the accomplice and Michel and she turns back to her left and then nods vigorously, confirming which car is to be stolen, just before a cut to

10.    the victims of the car theft getting out of their vehicle

11.    and returning to Michel, who’s now looking to his left and so is looking at his accomplice; Michel then looks rapidly to his right toward the victims.

12.    We see his accomplice waving Michel over; she had apparently moved toward them between shots 10 and 11 so when Michel looked for her at the start of 11 she wasn’t there hence the rapid movement to his left.

13.    Now it is clear why the victims are in the same shot.

14.    Back to Michel, but now in a medium-long shot, however he is still looking toward his left so maintaining the position between him and the victims – he nods in affirmation that this is the car he will steal.

15.    Shot of the harbour; this could have functioned as the establishing shot if it had appeared much earlier in the scene..

16.    This pans left until the accomplice is shown looking over the water

17.    The pan continues left after a cut to Michel jump-starting the car.

Shot 4 then immediately makes sense. So it seems perverse to read the scene the first way; however, whenever I show it to students that’s the way it is understood. Godard is following the rules of continuity editing but his decision not to include a shot of what Michel is looking at after shot 3 means we are likely to assume that that’s where the accomplice is. By taking one conventional shot out of the whole sequence Godard has broken one rule but created a very different looking film.

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