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

Brandon Analysis, Essay, Film, Moviemaking, Movies

The moment is played as a defining moment for Poiccard’s character. Poiccard is the gun. Poiccard is this action. In addition, the scene fulfills the final premise of Chekhov’s gun rule, giving the educated filmgoer no reason to expect the gun to show up again. Also, by placing the two premises of Chekhov’s gun rule so close together within a feature length film and fulfilling the second premise within the first act, Godard pokes fun at the rule, ridiculing it as cliché. He also celebrates it by manipulating it in a manner to reveal Poiccard’s character traits. The multi-layered scene of cliché-meets-innovation-meets-good-old-fashioned-storytelling sets the tone and pattern for the rest of the film.

We don’t see a gun in the movie until nearly twenty minutes before the film’s end, toward the beginning of its third act. Several guns appear when one of the detectives follows Poiccard’s romantic interest, Patricia Franchini, through the streets of Paris. They run by a police parade, featuring armed military personnel. The guns featured in the parade exist only to signify an increased element of danger. After Franchini loses the detective inside a movie theater, Poiccard and Franchini meet up outside and decide to go to a Western film. Providing transition, Godard plays the sound of gunfire from the next scene over a wide shot of the detective just missing them outside the theater. The gunfire recalls in the viewer, Poiccard’s murder of the cop at the beginning of the film. But it pulls us into an extreme close up and two shot of Poiccard and Franchini. The two shot equalizes them while the close up develops a great deal of intimacy. They face each other in their seats, and move in for a kiss. As they kiss, the gunshots roar on the soundtrack and the film in front of them. Normally, the kiss is a glorious and happy moment by Hollywood standards, but here Godard utilizes the sound of the gun to further signify the beginning of the end. The kiss is a doomsayer and Poiccard doesn’t see it, but the audience does.

The film rolls on. Poiccard and Franchini’s relationship proves to fail when Franchini informs on Poiccard to the cops. Poiccard accepts his fate, but runs into the street in attempt to save his criminal friend, Berrutti. Berrutti offers Poiccard a gun. The camera watches from behind in wide shot. The shot mimics our car ride with Poiccard earlier. Berrutti reaches over and pulls a gun from the glove compartment, recalling the gun scene from the beginning. Poiccard refuses, symbolizing a change in his character. No longer playful, Poiccard walks away, encouraging Berrutti to get off the street before the cops arrive. But it is too late. The cops pull onto the street. Berrutti tosses the gun over Poiccard’s shoulder. It lands on the street in front of him. Poiccard picks it up and the cops, donning a machine gun and a pistol, shoot him.

Unlike the Hollywood norm, Godard manipulates the audience’s expectation developed by a hundred years of rote storytelling structure, fulfilling Chekhov’s rule in the first act and alleviating any suspicion of the gun reappearing. With the arrival of the third act, he slowly builds a sense of danger with allusions to the gun’s return: military parades and the soothing gunfire of the Western. By bringing the gun back in the third act, Godard manages to subvert the cliché of Chekhov’s gun rule only to conform to it, providing a unique viewing experience for the educated filmgoer.


Sources

Breathless. Dir. Jean-Luc Godard. Perf. Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg. 1960. Instant Stream. Netflix, 2010.

“Movie Maker”. Movie Maker. April 15 2010 <http://www.moviemaker.com/magazine/issues/38/38_required.htm>.

Rayfield, Donald. Anton Chekhov: A Life. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1997.