Loose Cannon in Act One — The Role of the Gun in Godard’s “Breathless”

Brandon Analysis, Essay, Film, Moviemaking, Movies

* The following essay works best, if you’ve seen Jean-Luc Godard’s film, Breathless.

“If in Act I you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act,” said the famous playwright, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, in 1889 (Rayfield). Ever since, Chekhov’s gun, as his rule later became known, served as a common maxim throughout various storytelling media: film, in particular. Most Hollywood films adhere dogmatically to this and other rules of narrative economy; however, in the case of Chekhov’s gun, Hollywood may have taken his advice far too literally.

Throughout all eras in Hollywood’s short history, guns are rampant. They are fetishized at the hips of gangsters and heroically brandished in the hands of cops. They even serve as the centerpiece of a film-specific-choreographic-martial art, charmingly referred to as Gun Kata. Guns have such a rich history in Hollywood that the prop’s film relationship and influence bled into other vibrant film cultures, such as the French New Wave. So much so, that director and visionary, Jean Luc-Godard, also a student and critic of Hollywood film, once famously said, “all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun” (“Movie Maker”).

Godard, known as a uniquely experimental and code-bending filmmaker, follows the cinematic tradition within his first major success, Breathless. In Breathless, Godard introduces the gun very early in the film. The main character, Michel Poiccard, barrels down the street in a stolen car. Literally along for the ride, we are pulled into his world as we watch from the back seat. He passes two female hitchhikers and, being the respectable character that he is, doesn’t pick them up, because as he crassly puts it, “they’re both dogs”. From the back-right seat of the car, we gaze in a slightly skewed-to-profile medium shot over Poiccard’s shoulder as he fiddles with the radio. Cut to a close up of the open glove compartment, and Poiccard notices something. Reaching his hand into the compartment, he pulls from it a gun. He pulls the gun to the steering wheel, as we cut to a slightly closer hand held and medium shot from the back seat. The camera follows the gun as Poiccard points it at the rear view mirror. With his mouth, he mimics the sounds of firing the gun at the mirror: his own image. We follow the gun as he moves it, hovering it over the steering wheel. He points. We wait. A car passes, and again, Poiccard mouths the gun’s sound.

With this gun-following shot, we gain a layered and deeper insight into Poiccard’s character and Godard’s narrative. Poiccard play-shoots the mirror; not only is he a crass criminal, but he is playful. And worse, he is self-destructive. Poiccard play-shoots the car; he is destructive. The moment is the longest we spend with a gun throughout the entire film. Enacting the first premise of Chekhov’s gun rule, Godard lets the shot breath, thereby foreshadowing Poiccard’s end, which the viewer can only know at film’s end or upon a second viewing. And then a jump cut.

Godard cuts into the same shot. Poiccard looks off camera out the passenger window, searching or admiring what we know to be a landscape, and says, “Nothing like sunshine.” He raises the gun and points it at the passenger window. Dropping us into Poiccard’s mind, Godard cuts to Poiccard’s point of view: a rapidly passing by view of a crowded treeline futilely fighting to keep the sun from shining through. The close range sound of gunshots boom against the soundtrack. Further pushing the moment into the surreal, the window doesn’t shatter. The moment isn’t to be taken literally; however, it is jarring, begging contemplation.

Here, Godard offers us a view into Poiccard’s worldview and more foreshadowing. The playful criminal wants only the good things in life: the sunshine. And he is willing to do what he has to do to get it: the mental bullets firing at dark silhouetted trees. Then Godard cuts away to a medium shot behind Poiccard with the gun in his hand replaced by a cigarette, signaling a time change.

Literally seconds later, Poiccard is pursued by two motorcycle cops. He pulls onto an off road. Surrounded by dark trees similar to the ones that he just finished firing mind bullets at, Poiccard is discovered by one of the cops who doubled back. On his bike, the cop approaches in wide shot. We cut back to Poiccard, also in wide shot, as he reaches into the car for something. The equalizing shots set up a battle mentality. Then the cop’s shadow approaches, demonstrating the power he holds over Poiccard. He states, “Hold it right there!” Godard cuts into an already-dollying-down-extreme-close-up profile of Poiccard’s face. The shot drifts down, following the lines of his shoulder. Another cut into an already-moving-extreme-close-up pan along the line of Poiccard’s arm, ending at the gun. He cocks the gun, prompting Godard to cut into yet another already-moving-extreme-close-up pan across the gun, as we see the bullet chamber turn and hear the gun fire. The sequence of shots slows down the action for emphasis, drawing connection between Poiccard and the gun he holds. The cop falls to the ground in wide shot. Music bumps into the following extreme wide shot as Poiccard dashes across an open field well out of the trees. Goddard holds a pan with Poiccard as he runs and then fades to black, signally the end of Poiccard’s introduction.