Saturday, March 25, 2006

Fiction and Documentary Self-Reflexivity in Breathless and The Idiots

By the mid-1950s, interest in French film was on a steady decline. The major production forces had become preoccupied with “generic historical reconstructions and uninspired literary adaptations” that left the public restless and gave little room for creative pioneering (Neupart, xvii). Fortunately, the end of the decade saw the beginning of a rejuvenation period for French cinema known as the Nuevelle Vague or the French New Wave. The movement was comprised of a series of young filmmakers who were making low-budget films that focused on the youthful sentiments of the time. The filmmakers “followed the lead of the neo-realists, shooting primarily on location, using new or lesser-known actors and small production crews” (Neupart, xvii). While the classification of French New Wave has come to be a bit of a slippery term in reference to exactly what it classifies, Richard Neupart defines the period as lasting from 1958-1964 in his A History of the French New Wave.
Many of the filmmakers (but not all) who headlined this movement began as critics for the extremely influential French publication, Cahiers du cinema. One such critic-turned-filmmaker is Jean-Luc Godard, a name that has become synonymous with the French New Wave. While Godard has long outlived the French New Wave and continues to make films today, his later work became fiercely political and operates in a style somewhat removed from his early work. His films during the French New Wave are characterized as more playful and more reverent of film history and pop culture than his more recent work. His debut feature, À Bout de Souffle or Breathless (1959) is regarded as particularly laudatory of the American cinema and specifically the film noir genre.
One quality that has remained constant throughout his work is his penchant for self-reflexivity. The notion of self-reflexivity, as it is seen in Godard’s work, owes a great deal to the German dramatist of the early 20th century, Bertolt Brecht, and his notion of the “epic theater” or “theater of alienation.” Brecht “called for a fragmented, distantiated, ‘theater of interruptions’ which fostered critical distance” (Stam, 224). The aim was to constantly remind the audience that they were watching a constructed work of art and not a real life occurrence. One of the prominent ways of achieving this was having the actors break the fourth wall on stage and interact directly with the audience, a technique that came to be referred to as direct address.
Transferring this practice to the cinema directly opposed the early practices in film composition that strived to mimic reality, sometimes referred to as illusionism: “the belief that we are in the presence of real events and real characters” (Gaut, 90). Godard achieved a Brechtian distantiation in film through a number of elements; his most innovative feature may well have been his approach to editing. This can be seen perfectly in Breathless. While classical Hollywood cinema followed a highly structuralized editing system of establishing shots and shot/reverse shot sequences and André Bazin continually touted the merits of depth-of-focus and long takes to show continuous motion, Godard looked to instill a fractured nature in his editing process. By using a technique known as the jump-cut (two shots of the same subject cut together with little change in camera distance and angle), he jarred audiences by rupturing the flow of temporal and spatial continuity that had previously been the norm. One of the most notable instances of this appears during the first time Patricia (Jean Seberg) gets in Michel’s (Jean-Paul Belmondo) car. While the two drive around Paris, the shot is held on a relatively static Patricia’s head in the passenger seat but the location radically changes by way of jump-cuts. In this sequence the editing violently calls attention to itself, reminding the viewer that the film is put together by an authorial force. Given that the figure of Patricia is not radically displaced by the cuts, it conveys the impression of a long take that has been abbreviated, as if the camera has decided to cut ahead and skip certain parts of their drive in order to create its own plot.
The scene in which the camera is most anthropomorphized occurs at the beginning of the film when Michel steals the car and the camera seemingly jumps into the passenger seat as if it is along for the ride with Michel. From the amount of hood that is visible we can see that the camera is situated in the passenger seat and the shot takes on a POV connotation through its shaky handheld qualities. In the same scene, the camera definitively asserts itself as an active character when Michel turns and talks directly to it without being spurred by any force other than his internal need to comment on his situation.
Of course, Brechtian techniques and self-reflexivity in film is not a trait exclusive to the French New Wave. Another group that utilizes some of the characteristics set forth by Brecht is the Dogma 95 movement spearheaded by Thomas Vinterberg and Lars von Trier. While the movement is not identical to the French New Wave (for starters one of the goals is to avoid valorizing the auteur), it does share the same low-budget attitude in their “practice of rule-following to articulate and circulate a stripped-down and hence widely affordable concept of filmmaking” (Hjort, 31). The French New Wave shot on location and in the streets as a way to avoid studio costs. Similarly, the first entry in the Dogma 95 ‘vows of chastity’ is “Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in” (Hjort, 199). In addition, Dogma was eager to get away from the film of illusion approach which they believed to be “decadent and bourgeois, its supreme task being to fool the audience” (Hjort, 89). One way they combated this was by utilizing a documentary approach to filmmaking. In a sense, this brought a quality of Bazanian realism in that the camera could run for long periods of time while the actors improvised. Even though the Dogma 95 films do not present the sense of realism that we would expect based on classical Hollywood cinema foundations, it does create a sense of documentary realism.
The second film to bear the Dogma 95 seal of approval, Lars Von Trier’s The Idiots (1998) playfully straddles the line between documentary and fictional narrative. Since it is in fact a fiction film, the documentary techniques serve as self-reflexive because they draw attention to the filmmaking process and cause the viewer to question what form of cinema they are actually watching. In certain shots we can briefly make out the filming equipment, most notably in the factory scene when the boom microphone is clearly in the frame as the handheld camera jerks back. There is also the element of having the characters perform direct address while they answer questions posed by an off-screen interviewer during confessional scenes scattered throughout the film. Just like Godard physically inserted himself into the film Breathless, Von Trier inscribes himself into the Idiots by supplying the voice of the off-screen interviewer. Godard performed the same function in his 1967 film Two or Three Things I Know About Her, although in that case he alternated between interviewing the actual actress and the character whereas the interviewees in The Idiots stay in character throughout.
Returning to Godard and by way of him, Breathless, another element of self-reflexivity that must be touched upon is the presence of the cinema as a physical site in the diegesis. Author Douglas Morey makes note of this in his book Jean-Luc Godard: “Actual Parisian cinemas feature a number of times in the film as hiding places and lieux de passage and a young woman is seen selling copies of cahiers du cinema on the street” (Morey, 8). It is important here to make the slight distinction between the occasions in which Breathless acknowledges the medium of film and when it acknowledges that the viewer is actively watching a film because of the construction. While the roaming camera, editing and direct address are self-reflexive in the traditional Brechtian sense, the references to the filmic medium often become self-reflexive as well. While it may not be empirically self-reflexive for Michel and Patricia to choose to hide in a cinema while the police are pursuing them or for Michel to mention he worked as an assistant on a film production in Rome, there are times when the medium is acknowledged in interetextual ways.
One such example occurs near the beginning when Michel is trying to round up money from his friends. After having no luck he tells his friend that “Bob the gambler would have helped me out,” to which he is reminded, “Bob is in jail.” This is a direct reference to the 1955 French film Bob le flambeur, a work that is often considered a precursor to the French New Wave. If not indicative of the movement as a whole, it is certainly a great influence on Breathless as it is shot in the similar black-and-white film noir style. The verbal cue is a tribute to Bob le flambeur and to accentuate it visually, the film’s director, Jean-Pierre Melville appears on-screen as Parvulesco. Another example of a director acting in the film occurs when Godard himself appears as a man on the street that recognizes Michel from the newspaper articles. The scene happens just after the lengthy hotel sequence and it is as if we see the director physically reintroducing the conflict after such a long reprieve for the characters.
One scene that blends the role of cinema within the diegesis and the acknowledgement that the viewer is watching a film is when Michel stops outside the theater and regards a photograph of Humphrey Bogart. Morey points out that on several occasions, Bogart’s “mannerism of wiping his thumb across his lips is appropriated by Michel” (Morey, 9). This motif is brought to a crescendo outside the movie theater. The diegetic sound is muted and there is a close-up on the still image of Bogart which is followed by a close-up of Michel in a shot/reverse shot pattern that evokes the standard format of conversation scenes in classical Hollywood cinema. On the cut back to Bogart’s photograph, Michel’s smoke blows into Bogart’s face, emphasizing the spatial proximity of the character to the image. Simultaneously, this scene acknowledges Michel’s desire to mimic his Bogart within the diegesis and the required knowledge of filmic discourse to notice that standard film practices are being manipulated to create the illusion of a conversation between the man and the photograph.
In Breathless and The Idiots we have two examples of early films from two very radical movements of filmmaking. Both are aimed to deviate drastically from the mainstream and as we have seen, one of their main ways of accomplishing this is self-reflexivity. Be it the acknowledgement of fictional filmmaking in Breathless or the acknowledgment of documentary filmmaking in The Idiots, the construction of the medium takes front and center and the films’ perceptions are dramatically changed. The passive viewer of the illusion film has morphed into the active viewer of the self-reflexive film, a viewer who must have a vast knowledge of cultural capital and the filmmaking process in order to appreciate the films on the level that they are designed.

Gaut, Berys. “Naked Film: Dogma and Its Limits.” Purity and Provocation: Dogma 95.
Eds. Hjort, Mette, and Scott MacKenzie. London: BFI, 2003, 89-101.
Hjort, Mette. “Dogma 95: A Small Nation’s Response to Globalization.” Purity and
Provocation: Dogma 95. Eds. Hjort, Mette, and Scott MacKenzie. London: BFI,
2003, 31-47.
Morrey, Douglas. Jean-Luc Godard. Manchester and New York: Manchester University
Press, 2005.
Neupart, Richard. A History of the French New Wave. Madison: The University of
Wisconsin Press, 2002.
Stam, Robert, and Toby Miller. Film Theory: An Anthology. Malden, Massachusetts:
Blackwell Publishers, 2000.