Film

To become immortal, and then die

In early September 1997 my girlfriend, using a pistol, shot me in the back outside 11 Rue Chamagne Premier, Paris. Staggering down the street, left then right, before collapsing, I made three extravagant shapes with my mouth and called her a louse. It was she who had betrayed me to the cops. She did nothing more than move her thumb across her lips. Thus we recreated the final scene of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1959 film A Bout de Souffle.

The plot is an insubstantial one: Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) a low grade hoodlum steals a car then shoots dead a motorcycle cop before hiding in Paris with his American journalist girlfriend Patricia (Jean Seberg) He tries to persuade her to run off with him but she betrays him to the police who shoot him dead in a Montparnasse street.

One dislocating feature is the indifferent attitude of Michel and Patricia to what is happening to them. They are both represented as attractive: the beautiful people, the dark glasses, the smoking, the Parisian sang-froid, the perfect clothes, the effortless cruising round Paris in stolen convertible cars. Patricia seems indifferent to her pregnancy and Michel to whether he is the father or not. Although they seek to escape arrest from the chasing policemen, it comes over as more for the thrill of being pursued than frenzied self-preservation. They both seem indifferent to their fate. Michel is not an anguished young man wrestling with anxiety, he simply does not care. When Patricia betrays him, they stay fatally too long in their hideout calmly discussing the whys and wherefores of the motive of the betrayal, rather than fleeing. They lack the basic emotions and reactions that society requires of them.

Seberg plays a very modern woman. She is a journalist for the New York Herald Tribune, a young woman alone in Paris, about to enrol at the Sorbonne. She lives in her flat reading William Faulkner and Dylan Thomas. She has her hair close-cropped and wears a breton T-shirt, trousers and trench coat, smoking nearly as much as Belmondo. Her beautiful androgynous look broke away from the feminine norms of the voluptuous Hollywood pin-ups of the day (Marylin Monroe, Jane Russell, Sophia Loren) and trail blazed instead the look of the coming sixties (Twiggy, Jean Shrimpton, Julie Christie).

If the plot was stock noir, Godard created a new film grammar that revolutionised cinema. Jump cuts were used to advance the action with no regard to narrative logic and there were false matching shots which disorientatingly broke the rules of continuity. The innovative film language was further emphasised by a riffed improvisatory piano jazz soundtrack from the Algerian composer Martial Solal. It was a huge international success, launched the French New Wave, changed world cinema forever and made Belmondo and Seberg immortal.

In the summer of 1970 Seberg became pregnant with her second child to her husband Romain Gray. Like many of her generation (she was born in 1938) she supported the civil rights movement and various radical causes of the late sixties. She gave money to the Black Panthers. J. Edgar Hoover, under the notorious COINTELRO programme, authorised the FBI to plant a false story that the father of her unborn child was the Black Panther Raymond Hewitt. Between 1968 and 1972 the FBI hounded Seberg (the FBI years later admitted that she had been a target of the agency as her support for radical causes was perceived to be a threat to the US). The Los Angeles Times carried the fake piece in a gossip column that was syndicated across the States. Seberg, already beleaguered from pursuing agents and police, read the story in Newsweek and the shock sent her into premature labour. Her daughter died two days later and Seberg slid into a debilitating depression. At the funeral she opened the casket containing the tiny corpse to show the crowd (including the press) that the baby was white. In 1979, shortly after the ninth anniversary of her daughter’s death, she was found dead aged 40, naked in a Renault in a Paris suburb with a jar of barbiturates lying next to her.

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