I guess I am a bit stupid. Or dense. Or just conservative. Watching “A bout de soufflé” I kept asking myself, what is it I am supposed to love about this movie, what is so special that really ought to be super excited? I am through the movie and the extra material and I still have not come up with an answer. I do not hate this movie, but it does very little for me. Critics swoon over it so I must be, well, a bit stupid.
“A bout de soufflé” is supposed to be the movie that started the French new wave in cinema. It was a collaboration of all the filmmakers that made a name for themselves in France throughout the sixties and honestly that may be its claim to fame, as the starting point for all these people: Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol etc.
It is a rambling sort of movie, cheaply done using almost exclusively location shots and hand held equipment. The dialogue is not improvised, but seem often random, stylized at times, but also natural. That is all very nice but hardly new. The Italians started this 15 years earlier and Cassavete’s “Shadows” is far more out there than “A bout de soufflé” ever goes.
Then there is the story of a charming crook, Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) who wants to be Humphrey Bogart and spends his time looking cool, picking up girls and steal and swindles friends and foes. He even kills a policeman. Michel hangs out with an American student journalist, Patricia (Jean Seberg) and much of the movie is dialogue between the two of them. I am not sure what to make of that. Is this a theme of ultimate freedom and rebellion, sort of a “Thelma and Louise” story? Or maybe “Natural Born Killers”? Could be. Or maybe a theme on sexual freedom, that you are free to choose who you want, and with that free love you get into the confusion of sex and love. Clearly Michel and Patricia have very different positions on that and those positions the movie makes a lot out of. Patricia would say something to the effect of her position and Michel would answer by not answering at all but saying something entirely irrelevant to what Patricia was saying. Yet the two of them are inexplicably drawn to each other.
Inexplicably I say because although the movie makes a lot out of Michel’s charms you really do not have to look very far to realize he is a despicable character, not so much through his talk, stupid as it is, but simply through his actions. The man is an asshole and Patricia is way too smart not to realize that. So what does she want with him? It is my guess that she does not even know herself. Certainly when she turns him in she explains it as a test on if she really cares for him.
So, yeah, an examination of love and attraction is as close to a theme as I think we get here. Unfortunately as I cannot see what she wants with him in the first place, expect for his Belmondo lips, the theme is lost on me. She is playing with fire and he loves himself too much to really care about her. Not a good basis for a love story.
All is not lost however. Even I can find something of value here, though it is mostly in the detail. I love that the move was filmed in the real Paris and not in some studio version. The streets very not poor and grimy nor romantically bohemian. They were simply streets in Paris and that felt like a window into reality. At some point they were listening to Radio Luxembourg and that was what everybody in Europe did at the time. When the big radio stations were slow to adopt the new music you could always find it on Radio Luxembourg.
Of course Jean Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg became big, romantic stars and as the movie where their careers began “A bout de soufflé” deserves some credit I suppose. It is just not enough for me. Having a narcissistic criminal and a girl too smart to be there discussing love and sex for an hour and a half just does not cut it. In 1959 that was probably pretty awesome, but in 2016 this is just lame.