What follows is a guest post from one of our very thoughtful undergraduate students at Belmont, Jordan Heykoop. Jordan has just graduated with a degree in history. He wrote this paper as part of the requirements for an upper level course in transatlantic intellectual history I offered this past spring called “International Vistas: the U.S. Viewed from Abroad.” For this particular assignment, I asked the students to write about either Godard’s Breathless or Henry James’ short story “The Jolly Corner.” The idea was not for them to write a formal research paper, but rather, write a think-piece given the conceptual “toolkit” we put together through the semester, using different thinkers’ ideas about “America” and the like. This is what he came up with, and I wanted to share it with our readers. Enjoy. Jordan is happy to respond to any comments or suggestions.
Americans are lonely. “Americanization”–understood by European intellectuals and political leaders in the twentieth century as an export of American products and values, an investment strategy to control the economies of other countries, an attempt to educate foreigners in the superiority of American institutions, or a process of modernization, all in the name of the free market–was in some sense an export of glorified loneliness.
A democratic and capitalist spirit cultivated this loneliness in America. Alexis de Tocqueville observed that aristocracy made “of all citizens a long chain that went up from the peasant to the king. Democracy, on the other hand, “breaks the chain and sets each link apart” as it constantly draws each individual “back towards himself alone and threatens finally to confine him wholly to the solitude of his own heart.” People in a democratic era are no longer bound through loyalty and obligation, values which are far-reaching and stable, but through common interest, which is malleable and subjective. Individuals gather to negotiate and calculate their interests, then disband. This sense of equality breaks social and communal links and leaves the individual looking inward for identity, place, and meaning.
For Max Weber, a Protestant society, free from the structure and liturgy of the Catholic Church, cultivated a deep inner loneliness in which individuals worked desperately to discern signs of God’s favor. This discipline and sense of calling in a worldly vocation created the foundation for a capitalist spirit–the conditions under which a free market economy could thrive. America is the paragon of these processes. Late capitalism had become a “monstrous cosmos,” a world where the values of hard work and the sense of inner loneliness remained entrenched, but were completely unhinged from any religious foundation or teleological connection. This American brand of loneliness was commodified, advertised and exported across the Atlantic in the mid-twentieth century. Jean-Luc Godard’s film Breathless is an exploration of and response to the consequences of imported American loneliness.
American mass culture throughout Western Europe after World War II was striking in its pervasiveness. Movies, rock and roll, jazz, newspapers, magazines, advertising, and television captured the “collective imagination” of European audiences. These sounds and images were created for the common folk, and American mass culture was so dominant it did not feel like an import to European consumers; its conventions were imbedded in the consciousness and experiences of its audiences.
American journalism in particular captivated European audiences. American news stories were aimed at audiences with a short attention span, who wanted to be amused as well as informed. American reporting developed a formula of objective reporting mixed with eye-catching graphics, punditry, and gossip. American films also captured the European imagination. Movies seemed less verbal, languid and abstract than European films. They were cinematic, driven by narrative, action and spectacle. American films engaged and entertained audiences rather than attempting to instruct and enlighten–in other words, bore–them with high-minded philosophies and values.
Jean-Luc Godard was among a group of young intellectuals in France who crafted favorable and extensive reassessments of American films in the 1950s. These critics evaluated American movies on philosophical and aesthetic levels, impressing otherwise ordinary films with rich meaning and metaphors. In raising movies to the realm of art, they hoped to become artists themselves. Godard wrote for the influential journal Cahiers du Cinema. The Cahiers writers praised the directors of American films–customarily considered hired hands–as auteurs. Artists struggling against the ignorance of mass audiences, the unimaginative visions of producers, and a demand for commercial entertainment, the auteur became a master of subtlety, style, and indirection. He was the real creator of the film. The director controlled lighting, angles, and pace, which he used to infuse the film with meaning–the mise-en-scene.
In this setting of pervasive “Americanization” and French criticism of American film, Jean-Luc Godard’s film Breathless was a response to American mass culture. As both writer and director, Godard was the true auteur. He created a work of art that could entertain an audience and appreciate the innovation of American directors while critiquing the imported ideals of American society.
Breathless tells the story of Michel, a petty car thief turned wanted criminal, and his American girlfriend Patricia, an aspiring journalist who sells the New York Tribune in Paris. Michel impulsively kills a police officer after stealing a car, and must acquire a loan from a friend in Paris to flee to Rome. Michel tries to convince Patricia to run away to Italy with him. In the end, Patricia calls the police on Michel, and he is shot in the back and killed. Breathless is the story of two characters who play-act American ideals of independence, and are unable to connect and escape their isolation.
In style, Godard creates a personal and intimate film. He employs long continuous shots that achieve verisimilitude–the story is believable. Shots of Parisian monuments, buildings, and streets are striking, and establish a context in which, like the importation of American mass culture, ideas of America play out in a French setting. The camera is often focused on the individual–the character’s facial expressions and internal deliberations are on display. At the same time, Godard’s noticeable use of jump shots create a fast-paced narrative. The film takes on the pace and thrill of the police’s chase. At times, the characters turn and talk to the camera. The director’s presence is known, and he invites audience to join in.
Godard’s principal characters, Michel and Patricia, reveal how impoverished ideals of independence lead to an isolating loneliness. Michel aspires to be American, and his play-acting becomes his demise. Michel longs to be an American gangster–cool but not conspicuous, witty but not garrulous. Michel’s idea of America is clearly and curiously shaped by American cinema.
Michel smokes incessantly. He peruses newspapers for pornography. He dresses like a mobster. He wants to sleep with American women, drive American cars, and watch American movies. Outside a movie theater, Michel walks in front of a poster for Humphrey Bogart’s last film The Harder They Fall. “Bogey,” he mumbles. Michel’s remark takes on a double meaning.
He suggests “bogus,” a disbelief that his crime spree must come to an end. “Bogey” also invokes “Bogart”–it comes across as a familial and endearing nickname–the last name of the American actor whose likeness he attempts to imitate. Michel sees no distinction between actor and character. He wants to be Humphrey Bogart in speech, dress, and manner, because that would mean being American. He even walks around throwing punches at the air like the boxers in the film, suggesting his efforts at imitation are futile if not comical. Michel is a walking caricature of the American penchant for violence, glorified crime, and independence.
For Michel, independence entails acting outside of sexual and legal boundaries without consequence. He tries endlessly to convince women to sleep with him. When Patricia tells him she is likely pregnant with his child, though, he blames her: she should have been more careful.
He steals cars but shows no fear of being caught. After killing a police officer and seeking refuge in Paris, he sees his face in the newspaper each day but maintains an air of nonchalance.
At the end of the film, Michel accepts his demise. When the police arrive to arrest him, Michel does not hide. He refuses a getaway car and a gun. He knows from any American gangster film that the higher and faster he rises, the harder he must fall. Michel romanticizes the criminal’s fate, and his actions reveal an American faith that law and justice will prevail. Michel knows he can only run from the law for so long, and his capture is the pre-ordained denouement of the captivating drama. Or perhaps, Michel is truly oblivious to his impending fate, and he represents an American innocence and naïveté toward context and larger processes.
Patricia, an American journalist living in Paris, strives to become happy while maintaining her independence. Her attempts feel frustrated, and she is unsure why. In a meeting with an editor of the newspaper, she remarks, “I don’t know if I’m not happy because I’m not free, or if I’m not free because I’m not happy.” Patricia recognizes she is unfree, but confuses positive freedom with negative liberty in her pursuit of happiness. Freedom, understood by Hannah Arendt, consists in having access to the public realm. Individuals in a public space, who discuss, deliberate, and debate ways in which to constitute themselves with their share of public power, are experiencing freedom. To America’s founding generation, this share of public power, the right to be a participator of public affairs, brought a sense of happiness they could acquire nowhere else. Freedom is positive–a power to act, to commune, that creates public happiness. Liberty is essentially negative. Liberty is protection from oppression and obligation by the government in the pursuit of private interests.
Patricia is unhappy because she is unfree. She maintains an impoverished view of freedom that can never bring happiness, as she insists on her desire to be independent. When she enters her apartment to find Michel waiting on her bed, she remarks under her breath, “I can’t ever be alone when I want to.” Patricia wants to be sexually and financially independent. She turns down Michel’s sexual advances time and time again, though eventually always acquiesces. When he asks her, “why bother writing?” she replies, “to make money and not rely on men.” In a word, she wants to left alone. Beyond transgressing gender expectations, Patricia’s insistence on self-reliance points to an American disillusionment with independence–she is free by her own definition but feels unfree. She should be happy by her own standards but knows she is not. A journalist, she would rather interview others and report stories than be known herself. Patricia hopes to be outside the realm of public affairs, to sell the news but not be a part of it.
Patricia’s penchant for independence, and the unhappiness she cannot make sense of, expresses American society’s lost legacy of their Revolution: the positive freedom created in the republic is confused with negative liberty, and the public happiness enjoyed by the founding generation is lost to private happiness. Perhaps to be American is to feel unhappy and unfree, and not know why. In this sense, mass entertainment is also a diversion, an escape from existential ennui and discontent it helps create. The theater becomes a cultural temple, a momentary respite from spiritual loneliness.
“Let’s go see a Western.” Michel suggests to Patricia as the inspector follows their trail. The Western was a manifestation of the American imagination. Its exportation to and acceptance by European audiences informed their notions of American values and ways of life.
The hero of a Western was violent, rugged, and independent. He traveled and worked alone, acting outside the law to impose a higher sense of justice. He smoked, wore a hat well, and seduced beautiful women–the kind of man after whom Michel models himself. Instead of going to see the film, Michel and Patricia act out as outlaws in a Western, fleeing from the police in a stolen American car. There is no divide between art and life, as the two characters embody caricatures of tragic lovers caught up in a crime spree. The two run from the authorities together, but their lives remain separated.
Rilke’s observation that “modern life increasingly separates men and women” surfaces in Patricia’s interview with author Parvulesco. He is understandably unwilling to argue with the great poet, but seems unconvinced by this proclamation. When asked about love in modern society, Parvulesco ends up confusing eroticism and love, and contends they are the same. Eroticism is libidinal and selfish; the subject seeks to gratify sexual desires. Love is mutual, giving, and holistic; subject and object—the lover and beloved—are held in common commitments, and their interplaying desires cannot be compartmentalized. In turn, Parvulesco unknowingly concedes Rilke’s point: modern life conflates eroticism with love, selfish gratification with sacrificial commitment, and consequently separates and isolates men and women.
Michel, who wants to be an American, and Patricia, an American in Paris, reveal the inability of humans to connect in a modern, individualistic society. Michel claims to have a “feeling for beauty” and to love Patricia. In truth, his desires are libidinal and selfish; he mistakes eroticism for love and is left isolated. Patricia is more aware of her aversion to human connection, as she insists on her desire to be left alone and independent. The two exchange insults in their futile attempts at human connection. “You Americans are so stupid,” mocks Michel. “You adore La Fayette and Maurice Challe. And they’re the stupidest Frenchmen!” Patricia later replies, “the French are stupid, too.” Certainly, the two are not stupid. They engage the works of William Faulkner, Dylan Thomas, Renoir, Picasso, and Mozart, for example. These accusations rather suggest self-absorption. The two desire to have a monopoly on taste instead of valuing cultural exchange and the sharing of opinions in a public space. Here, Godard further depicts the selfishness of his characters while criticizing the apparently unstoppable hegemony of imported American mass culture, bent on dominating markets, not exchanging ideas. He also illustrates how Europeans and Americans create imaginaries of other nations, but in the end misrepresent each other. Underlying the exchanges is a desire to dominate instead of to share and understand. The couple come to this realization at the end of the film, when Michel confesses, “I just talked about myself, and you, yourself.”
The consequences of this imagined individualism are dire: Patricia shuns any opportunity for love and connection and Michel is betrayed by the one he loves. He is literally and figuratively shot in the back. The two are unwilling or unable to love; their loneliness prevails. Godard implicates American society in his character’s’ selfishness, naïveté, and impoverished views of happiness and independence. Like Patricia and Michel, Americans are shaped by mass culture, isolated by modernity, and left lonely in futile strivings for private happiness and endless entertainment. Americans only come to know themselves when it is too late–the owl of Minerva infamously takes flight at dusk. Michel only faces their self-absorption after Patricia has called the police. His conclusion that she, and the situation they created, are disgusting–in essence, a realization that they have become grotesques–come right before he is out of breath—au bout de souffle.
Americans can only come to understand their loneliness after it is too late to pursue human connection. The democratic spirit is too entrenched, the monstrous cosmos of late capitalism too ubiquitous, the forces of modernity too powerful to escape an incurable isolation.
An American audience, faced with Godard’s implication of the glorified loneliness of American society, can only respond, “C’est vraiment dégueulasse.”
 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (New York: Penguin, 2003).
 Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Penguin, 2002).
 Richard Pell, Not Like Us: How Europeans have loved, hated, and transformed American culture since World War II (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), 204-205.
 Pell, Not Like Us, 208-210.
 Pell, Not Like Us, 254-255.
 Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Penguin, 2006).