If I had seen “Breathless” in the early 1980s, when I was at the revival house eating outside food and watching Polanski double bills, I would have learned French. Because French got Godard’s ingénue, Patricia, out of North America and into the pants of the kind of louche boy I was groomed to crave.
She’s dating a gangster, and men in better suits notice her breasts. Patricia works this angle. Plus the other angle, of being visibly American and therefore intriguing yet ego-driven to mask her provincialism with mod hair and insouciance. Meanwhile, she’s leered at, teased, and written off while being compared, unfavorably, to other women. And all the while sweating it out in a new language.
Jean Seberg, our Patricia, is an American playing an American in Paris who probably really can’t speak French. Because real Americans don’t.
This is cinéma vérité.
The men already speak French. So there’s no male character who fails to understand the language in a cute way, like Patricia. She’s confounded by idioms. It’s endearing. It reinforces what we already think of her—she’s a little stupid. Or is this what Godard thinks of her?
Speaking of stupid, during my second month in Turkey a man I had not yet slept with said, “conversing with you is like talking to a child.” Which didn’t stop me from sleeping with him. Or putting out a fresh cigarette when he said to, because “only prostitutes smoke in the street.”
Patricia is learning. She’s always asking, “what does this mean, what does that mean.” On the other hand, she must understand something. Contempt* transcends language. Plus all that trash-talk was bound to improve her French. She got the gist.
Gist is my second language. German my third and Turkish my fourth. I have forgotten Italian. But not the men who asked me out, followed me around, and tried to break into my hotel room. Italy was too much.
So Patricia chose Paris. The Sorbonne. Her parents are paying. For some reason she’s reduced to selling newspapers. Somehow she finds a gangster. We know why she flirts with her boss—he lets her write for the newspaper. It’s part of the deal. Just like being propositioned on assignment.
Patricia is a silly blonde doll. Patricia is a hustler.
She’s also despicable. It’s easy to toss off je ne sais quoi when you’re just passing through—to seduce tragic men, get them killed, and fly back to New York, or someplace less glamorous. No wonder people hate Americans.
Patricia is a faux moll. Although she’s pregnant, which is no joke. Still, that juicy roman à clef is writing itself.
In fact, “Breathless” is a catalogue of the kind of low-rent encounters it takes to be real writer. What will Patricia stick in that book she’s outlining? Does she ignore the bad treatment or brag about it? After all, bad treatment means she’s passing for French. Although French women shrug it off. They realize men are helpless as first-year language learners. Worse: when they don’t know what’s happening, they pretend they do.
Make no mistake, les femmes are running a long con. Addling men with pixie cuts and Kindergarten French. Although this is true of women the world over. So, do we really need to learn French and get slapped by doomed gangsters in order to experience our fearsome power?
*”Le Mépris” (1963). Another Godard classic starring Brigitte Bardot as another faithless woman.
Kirsten Voris is a writer and translator whose work has appeared in Superstition Review, Hippocampus, Sonora Review, and other fine publications. She’s hard at work on a hybrid biography of the psychic who predicted her mother’s birth. @bubbleate