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Close-Ups: The French New Wave and the Face

by Iain Morrisson -- page 3 of 4
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Michel's Face
In the opening sequence of A Bout de Souffle, Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) drives along a country road in France and then, of all things, he turns and addresses the camera. Once the illusion of being a real character, and not merely an actor has been violated there is no way back. Our suspension of disbelief has been shattered and so we always have the thought in the back of our minds that Belmondo is merely play-acting. After all, he could turn to the camera at any given moment and speak out of character, thereby re-shattering the illusion. Belmondo does, in fact, turn to the camera on at least three separate occasions gesturing with his thumb to his lips. The close-up of this gesture creates an unsettling effect.

Jean-Paul Belmondo as Michel with Jean Seaberg in A Bout de Souffle.

Adopted from Humphrey Borgart's Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, this gesture consists of a tracing of one's lips with the tip of one's thumb. The key to the power of this image can be seen only if we consider a subtle ambiguity. It may not be as simple as saying that Michel is mimicking Bogart, for Belmondo is self- consciously playing Michel and Michel is mimicking Bogart. In the former case we might just see through the image of Michel to the fact that Bogart is being imitated. We would see Bogart through Michel. As it stands, however, we are not afforded the kind of transparency that would result from such a direct reference. When we look through the image of Michel gesturing we can also see Belmondo playing at being Bogart. What strikes us is the self- consciousness of the act; it is not that Michel pretends to be Bogart, it is rather that Belmondo knows he is pretending to be Michel pretending to be Bogart. This is given us through his looking into the camera lens. The look undermines the distinction between Belmondo and Michel. Thus, when we penetrate the image we do still see a reference to Bogart; but we are unsure of who it is that is doing the referring--is it Belmondo or is it Michel? It is this ambiguity that gives the image a certain arresting density or thickness.

A Bout de Souffle

View an animated GIF of Michel's gesture in A Bout de Souffle (12 frames, 73 KB).

There is a development here from the Truffautian usage of the close-up. In Truffaut it was the shattering of our expectations that gave the image a certain surface quality, preventing our seeing through it. That which the image refers to is unexpected and so we must look at it again in order to figure out what exactly is being referenced. With Godard there is no need for a contextualized emphasizing of the face since he immediately calls the referent into question by having Michel talk to the camera. Is it Belmondo playing at Michel or Michel himself? In the final film I have chosen to look at we see the focusing on the surface of the face taken to its logical conclusion and most beautiful conclusion. In this case, we cannot ask any questions about the referent at all.

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