The opening scene in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960) establishes his first film is going to be about an “asshole” who has to do what they have to do (“Yes, after all, I’ve got to. I’ve got to!”) What is left for us to decide is whom that person might be and what it is that they have to do.
The person we hear is Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo). This could suggest Michel is the asshole. However, what we see in the frame is a scantily dressed girl on the back page of a newspaper. Her hair and facial features resemble Max’s, revealed to us as Michel’s accomplice in the following shot. Does this make Max the asshole? Or does the girl on the back page stand for all women, making all of them assholes? Or perhaps just the women associated with papers?
It turns out the film answers all of the above, and more, affirmatively.
Michel, we come to learn, is a two-bit gangster living an invented life, both fanciful (name of newspaper he reads from: Paris Flirt) and imaginary (he mimics Bogart’s habit of having an idiosyncratic gesture (for Michel it’s his rubbing his thumb across his lips –a particularly significant gesture as we see later)). It’s a life not only not attainable (“girl” in the newspaper is an “idealized” version of a certain type of woman) but impossible to measure up to (who can measure up to Bogart?).
As the dialogue ends, Michel lowers the paper revealing himself leaning against a security gate. The glass behind the gate initially reflects the city’s skyline giving the impression that Michel is barred from the (loftier) world reflected in the glass. These bit of mise-en-scene primes us for the setting the film plays out in: the world of the two-bit gangster, contained within, but apart from, the loftier world reflected on the other side of the bars. This entrapment in a world determined by circumstance forces Michel to do what he has to do: live the life of a gangster.
This sense of confinement permeates the film and derivatively produces a sense of inevitability. These concepts of entrapment and inevitability are what Godard wishes for us to consider. The question he poses is: Is a two-bit gangster always destined to be a two-bit gangster? And, to what extent are our lives predetermined by circumstance?
Several scenes within the film focus this sense of entrapment/inevitability for us. One is Michel’s discussion with the camera during his (aborted) ride to Paris (in the stolen car) about not disparaging the options at hand (the shore, the mountains, or the city). Michel never disparages opportunities that present themselves. His immediate needs are to get to Paris, pickup his money and his girl, and escape to Italy. When the opportunity to steal a car presents itself, Michel does. When the opportunity to pass a car in a construction zone presents itself, he does. And when the opportunity to kill the policeman presents itself in order to prevent arrest, he does.
But it’s a distance from passing a car to shooting a policemanto death. Godard covers this distance is small discreet steps, each determined from the previous. Passing puts Michel at risk for a traffic violation (which is where the sequence would have stopped for all, except those driving a stolen car), resulting in a chase by policemen on (faster) motorcycles, resulting in a need to turn off the main road, resulting in a jarring ride on a dirt road, resulting in the loss of the shorting wire contact, resulting in Michel lifting the hood of the car, resulting in the trailing cop noticing and entrapping Michel, resulting in Michel - inevitably, or so it seems - shooting the policeman.
This inevitability is predicated by two events in the sequence: Michel stealing the car (impetus for having to outrun the police); and, finding the gun (consequence of stealing a military person’s car, which provides a convenient way to eliminate the threat of prison); and, is presaged when, after Michel states there is “nothing like sunshine” he points the gun at the sun in a mock shot. A (4 second) cut to the open window frames a sun partially obscured by trees. The nondiegetic sounds of a blast startle us into not missing the significance of this shot: Michel is about to darken his horizon.
Each of his decisions after returning to Paris involves getting his money and talking Patricia (Jean Seberg) into running off to Italy with him. And each is at once both an entrapment and inevitable from the point of view of a gangster. For example, Michel gets his money is in the form of a check requiring the necessarily additional step of cashing it. Michel stays already knowing the police have identified him as the killer. The entrapment here is that Michel needs the money to get to Italy. The inevitability is that the police are just a few steps behind him (Godard primes us for this inevitability at the start of the film when a police siren wails as Michel steals the car in the opening scene; and, signals time is running out for Michel when he asks Max for the time) as the iris-in shot highlights.
That the inevitable conclusion to the film is Michel’s death is also presaged several times after Michel arrives in Paris. An example is when, upon arriving, a man is killed in the street (in the next shot Michel opens up the paper to a story about the identification of the policeman’s killer - himself). Another is when Michel informs Patricia that he saw a man die (not clear if he means, the policeman or the man in the street – both could be considered “accidents”). A final example is in Patricia’s apartment when Michel tells her the story of the condemned man after Michel slips off the bed (condemned man slips on the scaffold to the gallows - Michel is that man on the scaffold). Later he tells her that he’s exhausted and is going to die. Clearly, Michel is nearing the end of his rope.
What saves (for 24 minutes) Michel from the police is his stay in Patricia’s room. It’s the perfect hideout for him/imprisonment for both (earlier Patricia had told the man from her newspaper that she didn’t know if she’s sad because she’s not free or vice-versa). In fact, Patricia is as trapped in her own life as Michel is in his. During this scene she wears a shirt with bars across it. Later, she switches shirts for one with vertical stripes, and then puts on Michel’s stripped shirt. Afterwards she appears in a stripped dress.
The most interesting scene in the film is the one that follows. It’s when Godard turns informant and notifies the police of Michel’s presence. The iris-in shot mimics the one before, and not only zeros in on the patrolmen to indicate the noose tightening around Michel, but also to focus on Godard, whose single action was one of informing. The implications are that the film is intended to inform us about Michel. Not Michel the gangster, but Michel the man stuck inside the role of a gangster. This scene not only transcends the gangster genre, but gets to the heart of Godard’s film: can anyone escape the roles assigned by circumstance? Michel’s role, as already alluded to, is that of a gangster. Patricia is assigned the role of information peddler (she hawks papers; later sells Michel’s whereabouts for freedom from police harrassment). The role of the police, the most straightforward, is to punish those that break the rules. The intent is to make clear that it's our roles in life that entrap us.
Later, Michael not only tells us the Gestapo built a wall so nobody could escape (an allusion to escaping our roles in life), but informs us that it’s the natural order of things to have a role that determines how you behave: “Informers inform, burglers burgle, murderous murder and lovers love. In other words, a person is incapable of doing anything that goes against her assigned role in life. And because it’s a fate they cannot escape, they cannot be deemed horrible. In addition to defining the motif of the film, this statement exculpates Patricia (and Godard) when she later informs on Michel to the police.
And it also explains her actions. Patricia is neither a car thief or a gangster. Michel and Patricia were never meant for each other. Their roles don't mesh. Patricia later realizes they (her and Michel) have to separate. We know she knows this is the case when the next morning she leaves for a milk and a newspaper after putting the policemen’s phone number in her pocket. Her “I’m (here’s) looking at you” farewell line to Michel seals it.
After Michel gets shot, his last words (“makes me want to puke”) are directed, not at anyone in particular, but rather the circumstance through which he was locked into leading his gangster life. Which makes all assholes in the sense of going through life locked into inescapable roles. A thoroughly disgusting existence. One that would make anyone want to puke.