Copyright © 2011 by James Clark
Both Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless and Billy Wilder’s Apartment were produced in 1959 and released in 1960. The former is widely regarded as a decisive change in the history of film; the latter is seen as an above-average comedy. The dialogue and physical incident of each boil over to the point of a close continuum of cinematic disturbance. Godard, in a Cahiers du Cinema piece, attempts to shake loose from that implication. But it’s not so easy to be done with the shared arteries of this transportation process; and its obtaining, far from a drag, may be seen to comprise a means to illuminating the powers of both efforts. Godard’s protagonist, “Michel,” in addition to being a flip murderer and thief, reveals himself to be a hit-and-run critic, himself being among the many targets he sprays. His first move is to tell us, “After all, I’m an asshole.” When speaking for himself (and his clique of brethren, modestly designated, “the New Wave”), Godard adopts Michel’s free-floating resentment toward the planetary cast of characters. Hence:
“After seven of itching, he [Wilder] decided to no longer bring tragedy to the joke, but on the
contrary to bring the comic to the serious. He took out an insurance policy on cinematographic
survival, and success invited itself in.”
The spirit of confession or heart-to-heart touching base with powers-that-be is also to be found in the starting point for “C.C.Baxter,” the protagonist of The Apartment, whose apartness emits a timbre distinctly different from that of Michel. Baxter introduces himself as a true participant in the insurance business, by means of a spate of actuarial statistics pertaining to his home base, New York, and his workplace, a leader in the field, where he occupies desk #861 on the vast coral-reef-platform of the 19th floor, which is but a simple facet of the office complex that holds 31,259 agitated little toilers in a boundless sea of gaining advantage and material well-being. Both of these tour guides, though they don’t go out of their way to stress it, emit an urgency about something very troubling in their life, which, despite their stance of knowing their way around, leaves them at a loss.
Whereas Baxter, claiming, “the whole thing got out of hand”—namely, his allowing associates to use his conveniently located Upper West Side brownstone apartment for various brief refreshments (lately devolving to workplace superiors’ convening with girlfriends far from the suburban interests of their wives)—maintains a nuts and bolts preoccupation with mundane getting ahead, Michel, from the get-go stealing a car and killing a prying cop, tends to levitate at some distance from everyday interests. We should first spend time on the latter’s whirligig occupancy of being at the center of impending arrest, such that even after his girlfriend’s telling him she has reported his hideout to the law he gives the impression of having forever to vacate the place and becomes far less unpleasant than others would be. “I knew it…” he states, and goes on to muse about what “they say,” namely, “there is no happy love.” He does berate her as being “crazy,” then exits (still without haste) by stating further, “I’m better than you are.” (Baxter, on the other hand, played by Wilder’s go-to exponent of feeble outrage, Jack Lemmon, takes every rude surprise, in being a patsy, like a Dreyfusard (his neighbor, a medic who finds much fault with his supposed sex-addiction [he hears only the women], is named “Dreyfus”), nearly imploding at the realization that there is such a thing as injustice. Before becoming a cop-killer, Michel sends off some hints that that retro jacket and fedora he’s wearing while boarding the car that doesn’t belong to him are but a sampling of an elaborate and remarkable contrivance on behalf of infusing some impressive vivacity into his asshole cruising speed. Along the way he encounters a movie poster showing Humphrey Bogart and whispers reverently, “Bogey…” Straightaway we realize that although he’s inspired by the daring and sang froid of his role model, the pint-sized lawbreaker has not come close to mastery of the free-lancer’s laconic thrum, so central to his appeal. He’s tooling along the highway from Marseille to Paris, yapping to us about leaving a lowly Renault in his wind shear, about a couple of girls hitchhiking but unworthy of his assistance—“They’re both dogs”—and singing in the mode of early-music-hall gigolos. “I really like France… If you don’t, then get stuffed!” Turning up in Paris, primarily to collect on moneys owing and then move on to Italy (hopefully with a girl named “Patricia”), his gestures of cheeky audacity become buoyed by a kaleidoscopic gathering of other film highlights, some going back to Bogey’s era, some coming out of movie shoots almost simultaneous with the one about him. This chording provides access to the puzzling energies of not only Michel but his partner-in-crime, Patricia. In the course of his canvassing for funds and eluding arrest, he steals many cars, one of which is a big white Cadillac El Dorado. As they glide in it, amidst the dream-like, grainy-textured traffic and edifices, we are put in touch with another Michel and his girlfriend, Lola, whizzing witlessly along the strand at Nantes (in Demy’s Lola, and their bringing into play the design priorities of another Michel—Mike Hammer—from the non-Bogey noir, Kiss Me Deadly. Leaving aside for the moment the strictures relating to resolve and courage coming to bear thereby upon the fugitive Michel, we can factor in Lola’s display of loyalty to her dubious man and to the rush of love, to an upshot of measuring Patricia’s disloyalty amidst the same wreckage comprising contemporary history. (“Patricia” is also linked to both the loving waif and loveless wife who favored the song by the same name [the latter for her impromptu strip-tease], in La Dolce Vita.)
Baxter, occupying this same quicksand dynamic, gathers up his apparatus at desk 861, and leaves in the dust the Renaults gridlocked on that service road, en route to the executive-office payoff for services rendered to the powers-that-be. In doing so he touches upon another production in the works at that time, showing a similar (and yet so dissimilar) handful gingerly carried by the fresh-faced little sweetheart in Il Posto (1961), in quiet awe to be settling into the office gridlock at his first job. (That would seem to be a case of the tempering factor from the Italian tradition having been activated by the stream of cynicism in the American workplace.) Baxter’s Bogey is “Fran,” an elevator driver at the office tower, who impresses him as both cool and wholesome—not quite operating at the same level of skeptical wit as the Italian boy’s sheltered and winsome work-acquaintance and dream girl, but towing her along nonetheless. On discovering that Fran is part of the entertainment package that has leveraged him into a key to the Executive Washroom—breaking a date with him to keep pursuing the head of Personnel whom she has (a bit like Lola) trusted unwisely—Baxter has second thoughts about the life of the upwardly mobile and the nature of love.
Thoughts fill the air, along with endless, noir-inspired cigarette smoke, when Michel catches up with Patricia, a Sorbonne-bound exchange student from America whom he had first (briefly) encountered on the Cote d’Azure. Played by Jean Seberg, she looks quite a bit like the ambitious and fixedly rural psychiatric nurse in Persona, but she exudes patrician self-confidence that far outpaces any competence she might have (her French being, for example, reminiscent of that tossed about by the American sailor who was one of Lola’s part-time boyfriends). She parlays that attitude, and perhaps insider leverage, into a “star” cub reporter job (doing an interview with a celebrity novelist/ pundit, where flirting outruns conversation), to be cutely accessorized by a gig of strolling newspaper salesgirl for her platform, the Herald Tribune. Michel would have swaggered into her life—as he does, catching up with her picturesque retailing on the Champs Elysees, and then, stealing her key from the hotel, catching up with her again from the vantage point of her bed—as (were it fifty years later) a Facebook sensation. After some dry sexual manoeuvring, she asks him, “Why are you so sad?” (We learn she’s writing a novel, perhaps another Bonjour Tristesse)/ “I just am,” is his fumble that would have Bogey laugh out loud. At a second liaison, after some wet manoeuvres concluding with her, “So that’s that,” they take up his berating her, on the previous occasion, “She’s such a coward…”/ “Get lost!” She indicates a slippery distraction we can see even more pronouncedly in him—she having digested the importance of posture and stillness: “I’d like to think about something but I can’t.” He follows with, “Women always do things halfway.” Having no serious interest in this loser, but finding in him a stylistic kinship and curiosity—“I’ll put it in my book”—and a possible catalyst, she leads him through a supposedly fascinating ambivalence toward his advances. This miasma comes to a striking focus in her referring to the last line of William Faulkner’s novel of reckless love, The Wild Palms, namely, “Between grief and nothing, I will take grief.” That suits Patricia. But Michel, who asked if Faulkner was some guy she slept with, counters with, “I’d choose nothing… Grief’s stupid…” and thereby he touches, ever-so-lightly, upon the theme-song of Kiss Me Deadly, “Rather Have the Blues (than what I’ve got)”—grief being seen as a bathetic faux pas in exorcizing rigorous dynamics. (Counterpointing that dicey, if irresolute, interview, there is her attendance at the press conference featuring the novelist, who turns out to be an eighteenth-century “hell-raiser”—“In America the woman dominates the man… There is no difference between eroticism and love… My greatest ambition? To become immortal and then die.”)
Patricia replies to Michel’s mocking question, “Why write?”/ “To make money and not depend on men.” Her garrulous, blue-chip canniness stands far apart from Fran’s approach to language. Denied entry to the steno pool due to indifferent spelling habits, her suicide note sides with nothing as against grief—namely, the cheque for one-hundred dollars her love interest slips her in lieu of a Christmas present. Apprised (by his secretary and former playmate) that he has frequently claimed to have begun divorce proceedings against his wife, in stringing along several of the females amongst that complement of 31,259, she numbly hears him tell her, “I have to get home to trim the tree… Here’s a hundred dollars [and, at her displeasure] Don’t make yourself out to be cheap.” He leaves, and she misuses Baxter’s supply of sleeping pills. A bit after the latter and Dreyfus bring her around, she becomes over-impressed with her tormentor’s new address, the Athletic Club of Manhattan (the eternal playboy’s fired secretary having provided his wife with news about Fran), opines, “It all worked out fine,” and at a New Year’s Eve party the supposed steady expresses a delight in being a bachelor, disabusing her of long-term plans. Baxter having resigned from his solid citizen jag of being in the money, the newly deflated Fran (her paper Queen hat matching his King) hears of this from his erstwhile supervisor and rushes to his apartment, now stripped down for a move, since, being unemployed, he can no longer afford it. She had told him while convalescing in his bedroom, “Why can’t I ever fall in love with someone like you?” That “fascinating me” gesture recalls Patricia with her stalled little room-mate—“I want you to love me, and yet I want you to stop loving me.” Only, Fran has been, like Baxter, able to make herself “out to be cheap” and therewith to reconfigure her role in history in the light of Baxter’s generous and far-reaching affection, and her own. Noteworthy in all this is some form of break from calculative reasoning, neatly capped by her barging in on his popping open a bottle of champagne (she imagining the noise to be his committing suicide), at which she proposes finishing a game of gin rummy (and its plentiful scope for calculation). Unable to contain his joy, Baxter blurts out, “I love you… I adore you…” She offers, “Shut up and deal.”
Patricia does not require much inducement by Michel’s pursuer to do some strategic talking for the sake of sidestepping the downside of her playing with fire. (“You have a work permit? You don’t want any passport problems.”) Unable to resist playing with the chase, she postpones revealing his whereabouts, rushes him into a movie theatre (showing a Budd Boetticher Western about facing danger with grace), and her question is not about his being a murderer but his being married. (The Cadillac scene intervenes here to set in relief the visceral torpor Patricia comprehends to be no liability in the precincts of paper crowns.) Baxter and Fran, though facing an economic crisis, can breathe in the thrills of the moment. Patricia seals the deal, Michel is gunned down in the street, and who should race up to him but the pure-bred newshound. Seemingly contradicting his rhetoric of “nothing” trumping “grief,” during his studiously cool contemplation of his fate he tells her, “I prefer prison… I can look at the walls… I’m fed up…” In contrast to Velda and Mike, these two never bring critical danger into its own. Michel, shot in the back, staggers a melodramatically long way before collapsing, more in the spirit of silents than noirs. Patricia hears him spit out, “Makes me want to puke!”—his assessment of her and the world at large. She pretends not to comprehend the French word for “to puke,” degueuler, and its easily turned aside vulgarity. In a final close-up, a very slight smile crosses her face.
In 1960, Breathless impacted like a bombshell due to its rigorous and ruthless assault upon second thoughts. Michel and Patricia have put all their chips on muscle tone, but the wheel proves unkind to tone-deafness. Their oh-so-cute costuming and posturing brushes over an abyss which neither has the attention-span to engage as power, distinct from baby spotlights. During the scramble on the streets of the City of Light, there obtrudes a motor cavalcade (presented by way of a documentary newsreel) where President De Gaul joins President Eisenhower to, among other things, pay homage at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Needless to say, such affairs make no impression upon them at all. They have fastened a death grip upon the insupportability of the enervation and self-delusion of mainstream life. But, hate them or not, those old campaigners were sound inasmuch as they appreciated that half-assed putdowns carry no weight at all in world history.
Breathless grabs our attention insofar as it anticipates a critical mass of bourgeois brats—just before the kill, they discover and celebrate, typically as sound bites, their familial induction into the niceties of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto—claiming entitlement to (more or less circumspectly) make wreckage of the not very cool conjunctions of discursive history. It brings to sharp focus a prevalent legacy of being advantaged by rationalist upbringing. (Speaking of which, the other night there was an expert introducing a screening of Il Posto—a film studies honcho from one of Ontario’s “better” universities—who wanted us all to look for the “total absence of love” there and the stirring dismissal of such demeaning salaried work depicted. He helpfully went on to remark, “I once had a job like that, when I was seventeen.”)
In light of such blitzkrieg bravado, the small-scale twisting of Fran and Baxter (“C.C.” being his first and second initials, cueing up second thoughts) might appear quaint and obsolete. “It’s always fun having company at Christmas,” is his way of getting across to her that her convalescence is a windfall “to make the season bright.” There is, however, no “turkey and some mistletoe” at his place: he bubbles away with pseudo-Italian opera as he prepares a dinner of meatballs and pasta (the latter strained through his tennis racket), a follow-through from his account of trying to shoot himself when an affair went down in flames. They have a laugh about his blasting out his knee when a cop interrupts his getting up the nerve in his parked (not, as with Michel, stalled) car. This is far from typical Christmas Day (actually, Boxing Day) conversation (she being bedridden on the actual Big Day), but Jack Lemmon and Shirley McClain inhabit the wreckage of those lives with such unassuming charm that the day seems quite in order. Baxter gets going on the pasta, matching his faux Italian chef vocals with a little bit of choreography, and we see he’s found a loving topspin “making bright” the tailspin of fatuity he has been locked into for a long time. Then he gets punched out by her brother-in-law, whom Baxter misinforms by way of gallantly taking the blame, and who kills all the festivity. As if to say those aromas of peculiar grace cannot be snuffed out this time, there is the New Year’s Eve party, with his champagne opened as a singles and enjoyed as a doubles, and a game of cards (hardly the keynote for a kick-ass year to come). But what better way to launch something special, than by dealing with a silent reservoir, that second thought?
Gadabout Godard, who seems to have revelled in getting into the face of many of the stalwarts producing movies around the year 1960, seems to have been particularly intrigued by filmmakers, like the copains, Demy and Bresson, and the casting associate, Fellini, who were self-evidently not about the next generation of power blocs. (His dedication of Breathless to gritty noir centre, Monogram Pictures, comes to us as a slap at Demy’s dedication of Lola to Max Ophuls, whose Lola [Montes] would aver, “For me, life is movement”—a juicy target for those disposed to sneer at such reflection as effete pretentiousness.) In addition to his pre-emptive (but, at these early days, problematically fertile) strike along lines of Michel and the white Cadillac, there was the obsession with getting to Italy and Michel’s claim, no doubt spurious, but revealing, to have worked at Cinecetta. (When he finally catches up with those fellow-thugs-cum-fashion-plates [one tells him how disappointed he is to see him wearing silk socks with a tweed jacket; another, in the spirit of Mike Hammer, has a girlfriend who launches lurid kisses by way of propelling a blackmail business] the setting is modelled on La Dolce Vita’s Via Veneti.) Wilder, who was a person of interest to Godard for the same reasons just set in relief, confined his film’s visitations to having Baxter—who claims to be an Arthur Murray graduate—buy a bowler hat and, in an episode of getting drunk in a bar on Christmas Eve (Fran at his place choosing her own poison), arranging several olive-skewered martini swizzle sticks in a Busby Berkley configuration, being picked up by a lonely gal and doing endless sleepwalk crawls with her to the dive’s jukebox, reminiscent of Fred Astaire when things temporarily unravel in his comedies. “It only takes 30 seconds to be on the street again,” is the kingpin’s statistical reminder to the disenchanted flunky that this is a more stressful world than that of Fred and Ginger. Fran and Baxter’s party in the trenches sends us forward with awe regarding that paradoxical thread introducing a workable (and dilemma-filled) relation between intimate composure and public distemper. It introduces a non-socialist adjustment to her way-of-the-world cliché, “He’s a taker. Some people take and other people get took. They know they’re getting took and they can’t do anything about it.”