P:O.V. No.6 - The Art of Film Editing

Five explanations for the jump cuts
in Godard's Breathless

Richard Raskin

Since its eruption onto the film scene in 1959, Godard's Breathless has given rise to a number of very different hypotheses as to what motivated the director's radical departure from the practices of continuity editing when making this film. In the present article, I will present the spectrum of explanations that have already been offered, without putting any one of them to the test. To my knowledge, no overview of this type has as yet been proposed in the literature on Breathless, each commentator having offered a single explanation of his or her own, without evoking alternate approaches to the issue.

Although the present article[1] contains no previously unpublished explanation, it nevertheless represents a departure from earlier treatments of Godard's now famous jump cuts, in the sense that it illustrates the susceptibility of a given innovation to radically different explanatory options. Since this film remains a landmark in the history of world cinema, and is routinely studied as one of the major representatives of la nouvelle vague, the present article may be of some use to students of film history and of current trends in editing, as well as to those interested in the styles of explanation applied to problems of film esthetics.


Among the least flattering explanations offered, is the one proposed by director Claude Autant-Lara, who was one of the principal targets in Truffaut's provocative essay, "Une certaine tendance du cinéma français" published in the January 1954 issue of Cahiers du cinéma. Autant-Lara, who considered his own career to have been blighted by the young newcomers of la nouvelle vague,[2] had this to say about Godard's elliptical editing:

I know the story behind Breathless and I can tell you it's a corker! A minor producer had hired a minor director to make a minor crime movie running a maximum of 5,000 meters. But the director filmed 8,000 meters; the producer told him to cut it down, but the director refused. Then he was forced to do so. So in an act of bravado, he made the cuts himself any which way, at random, in order to make the film unmarketable.. But curiously enough, once the bits of film were mounted, the producer considered the result to be ingenious, edited with power, astounding... He had wanted to demonstrate the impossibility of cutting his film, but what he did turned out to work. Then Godard understood... and in his subsequent films, he produced more Godard! Senseless ellipses, cuts in the middle of a tracking shot, were taken to be part of a new esthetic. It became a fashion. And France is the country of snobbism in the cinema - a country which gets caught up in everything and especially no matter what![3]


Somewhat related to Autant-Lara's explanation, and no more flattering, are the comments made by Robert Benayoun. While Autant-Lara claimed that Godard's intention was to ruin the film in order to get even with the producer, Benayoun suggested that Godard's jump cuts were made as a devious attempt to save a film that would otherwise have been a critical disaster:

...in order to save a film not worth showing (Breathless), Godard chopped it up any which way, counting on the critics' susceptibility to being astounded, and they didn't let him down in helping him to launch a new fashion, that of the badly made film. Incorrigible waster of film, author of idiotic and abject comments on torture and denunciation, a self-promoter, Godard represents the most painful regression of French cinema towards intellectual illiteracy and plastic bluff.[4]


According to an account given by Godard himself, the elliptical editing of Breathless resulted from a need to reduce the length of the film, but not under circumstances like those described by Autant-Lara. While Godard refers to a contractual necessity for eliminating up to an hour of the film's running time, he makes no mention in this account of undue pressure on the part of the producer, nor of any wish on his own part to preserve the film in its original length of 135-150 minutes. If anything, he appears to consider the original version of the film to have been too long as a result of his own inexperience, and the requirement to shorten the film as fully justified:

...first films are always very long. Since after thirty years [of living], people try to put everything into their first film. So they're always very long. And I was no exception to the rule. I had made a film that lasted two and a quarter or two and a half hours; and it was impossible, the contract specified that the running time not exceed an hour and a half. And I remember very clearly... how I invented this famous way of cutting, that is now used in commercials: we took all the shots and systematically cut out whatever could be cut, while trying to maintain some rhythm. For example, Belmondo and Seberg had a sequence in a car at a certain moment; and there was a shot of one, then a shot of the other, as they spoke their lines. And when we came to this sequence, which had to be shortened like the others, instead of slightly shortening both, the editor and I flipped a coin; we said: 'Instead of slightly shortening one and then slightly shortening the other, and winding up with short little shots of both of them, we're going to cut out four minutes by eliminating one or the other altogether, and then we will simply join the [remaining] shots, like that, as though it were a single shot. Then we drew lots as to whether it should be Belmondo or Seberg and Seberg remained...[5]

The scene described here may be the one in which Belmondo's off-screen lines are:

Alas! Alas! Alas! I love a girl who has a very pretty neck, very pretty breasts, a very pretty voice, very pretty wrists, a very pretty forehead, very pretty knees... but who is a coward.

As these lines are heard, we see a series of shots of Seberg in the passenger seat of the stolen convertible Belmondo is driving through the street of Paris. Discontinuities from one shot to the next with respect to (a) the position of the actress's head, (b) the degree of direct sunlight or shade, and (c) the streets and parked or moving cars seen in the background, make this one of the best examples in the film of Godard's jump cuts, seven of which turn up here in rapid succession.

Alas! Alas! Alas! I love a girl who has a very pretty neck...

...very pretty breasts...

...a very pretty voice...

...very pretty wrists...

...a very pretty forehead...

...very pretty knees...

...but who is a coward.


Other commentators have seen in the jump cuts a cinematic expression of qualities embodied by the character played by Jean-Paul Belmondo: Michel Poiccard, alias Laszlo Kovacs, who has no pangs of conscience whatsoever when he kills a motorcycle policeman in cold blood or knocks a man unconscious in a public lavatory in order to supply himself with some needed cash.

The barrel of Michel's revolver as he aims and fires at the gendarme.

The gendarme falling as the next shot begins.

Viewed in this perspective, the ellipses are meaningful in the sense that they are expressive of the behaviors enacted in the film. Hence the way in which the film is edited, and the conduct depicted in the film, are seen as structurally homologous.

For example, Luc Mollet wrote: "Because the conduct of the characters reflects a series of moral jump cuts, the film will be a series of jump cuts."[6] And according to Bosley Crowther, the "disconnected cutting" of the film - a "pictorial cacophony" - is appropriate for a film in which "there is subtly conveyed a vastly complex comprehension of an element of youth that is vagrant, disjointed, animalistic and doesn't give a damn for anybody or anything, not even itself."[7]

A more elaborate attempt to decode the significance of the jump cuts, can be found in Annie Goldmann's discussion of the film. According to Goldmann, Godard does not use elliptical editing in scenes depicting relations between persons. In these scenes, involving Belmondo and Jean Seberg in their roles as Michel and Patricia, she suggests that the relations are fully (i.e. not elliptically) described because of their primordial importance. It is in scenes depicting the social world - such as the killing of the gendarme - that the filmic representation becomes elliptical, "the editing telescoped, with 'holes' between the shots," because in Michel's eyes, incidents involving the representatives of social authority are unimportant:

The action is shortened, not for the purpose of giving the impression of rapidity, but because the event itself is of no interest to the hero... For him, and for the viewer who sees the world through Michel's mind... everything about these events is of no interest to the degree that everything related to society is of no concern to him. This is why the director represents it almost carelessly and even unintelligibly at times.[8]

Unfortunately, Goldmann does not attempt to demonstrate the validity of her claim by showing systematically that elliptical and non-elliptical editing are used in scenes depicting what she views as social and personal relations, respectively. The convertible scene cited above - to name only one example of a scene combining personal relations with jump cuts - would be difficult to account for in the context of Goldmann's model.


Godard's jump cuts have also been seen as part of a new esthetic, a radical departure from worn-out modes of cinematic discourse, and an attempt to carry out within the film medium revolutionary developments found in other arts.

For an anonymous reviewer in Time, Godard brought cubism into the language of film:

More daringly cubistic is the manner in which Godard has assembled his footage. Every minute or so, sometimes every few seconds, he has chopped a few feet out of the film, patched it together again without transition. The story can still be followed, but at each cut the film jerks ahead with a syncopated impatience that aptly suggests and stresses the compulsive pace of the hero's downward drive. More subtly, the trick also distorts, rearranges, relativizes time - much as Picasso manipulated space in Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. All meaningful continuity is bewildered...[9]

For Arlene Croce, Godard's editing is analogous to jazz, and is part of an esthetic which shifts the focus of interest from meaning to the cinematic medium itself:

Breathless is a mannerist fantasy, cinematic jazz. Watching it, one can hardly avoid the feeling that Godard's intention, above all, was to produce slices of cinema - shots, figments, iconography - what the Cahiers critics talk about. His reality is always cinematized; the camera is always "there," as it were, with its short jabs or long looping rambles of celluloid. There are few dissolves and almost no smooth cuts; and the cuts are often so fast that for moments at a time the spectator is thoroughly dislocated. For example, the arrival of Belmondo in Paris is shown thus: a long shot of the city/a car pulling up/Belmondo entering a phone booth, making a call, getting no answer, leaving/Belmondo somewhere buying a paper/Belmondo on the doorstep of a pension, with some dialogue/Belmondo inside at the concierge's desk and stealing a key/Belmondo emerging, toweling, from the bathroom of the apartment. The whole truncated sequence lasts considerably less than a minute; there are no transitions, no "continuity." Often there are cuts made within the same shot. No attempt is made, either through cutting or through the long drunken pans, at academic-style montage, composition, or meaning of any sort. It is merely movie business...[10]

Penelope Houston also characterizes Godard's esthetic as one shifting the focus from story or narrative to a more instantaneous experience, grounded in the very language of the cinematic medium:

...the film is edited so that the traditional time sequence is broken, with jump cuts (by which we may see the beginning and the end of an action, but not the bit in the middle), with repeated shifts of place and viewpoint... [such gambits] are not merely stylistic fancy-work. They underline an attitude to film-making. If the director's basic concern is to tell a story to a large audience, he will help the spectator to follow it easily: if a character tells us that he is going to do something, and there is then a cut, we are conditioned to expect that in the next scene he will be doing the thing he talked about. But if the film-maker is concerned not so much with a story as with the immediate instant, with the involvement of the audience less in a narrative than a sensation or an experience, with the kind of chances and hazards that intervene in life, then these wires of convention can be cut and left dangling. The film finds and imposes its own logic.

What we see is what the director chooses to show us: if he finds something boring and decides to skip over it, with an implied 'etc., etc.', then he assumes that we know enough about cinema conventions to keep up with him. In Breathless, certainly, the characters themselves have no existence outside the context in which Godard evokes them... The film itself is the thing; and the audience finds at least part of its pleasure in a sharing of the director's own excitement, the sense of glee he transparently feels at the improvised moment that sets the screen alight, the experiments with timing, the investigation of a language.[11]

Godard's violation of the most basic rules of continuity editing would be seen in this context as a breakthrough to a new conception of cinematic art. This would be a constructive characterization of what might otherwise be seen in more destructive terms.

The view Godard himself expressed, at least on one occasion, was far less positive. When asked by Gordon Gow exactly what he had in mind when making Breathless, Godard replied

that he doesn't hold with rules and he was out to destroy accepted conventions of film-making. Hiroshima, mon amour, he said, was the start of something new, and Breathless was the end of something old. He made it on real locations and in real rooms, having no truck with studios (although more recently he has worked in a studio and found it advantageous). He employed a hand-camera, because he is impatient and when he is ready to shoot he doesn't like waiting about for complicated camera set-ups. And having finished the shooting, he chopped it about as a manifestation of filmic anarchy, technical iconoclasm.[12]

More recently, Agnès Guillemot, who edited or co-edited most of Godard's films during the 1960s, made the following statement about what she saw as the underlying reason for Godard's innovative style of editing:

Godard is not a specialist of the jump cut, he is a specialist of the true respiration of the cinema, which is not at all the same thing. And the so-called correct way of cutting has for a long time been a hindrance to the true respiration of the cinema. Godard is the specialist of audacity and freedom. He did not edit his films against the rest of the cinema but rather for what he thought they ought to be.[13]

Summary and Conclusions

The elliptical editing of Breathless has been explained, in the literature on the film, as being motivated by: 1) a deliberate attempt on Godard's part to ruin the film in order to get even with a producer who had insisted that the film be shortened despite Godard's protests (Autant-Lara); 2) a devious attempt on Godard's part to save a third-rate film by mutilating it in a way French film critics would perceive as astounding (Benayoun); 3) a need to shorten a film that was too long, and a wish to do so in a new way (Godard); 4) a desire to express cinematically the moral and emotional disjointedness of the behaviors portrayed (Moullet, Crowther), or to depict the social world as meaningless in the eyes of Michel Poiccard (Goldmann); 5) the director's quest for a new esthetic - a cinematic equivalent of cubism or jazz - shifting the focus of interest from story or meaning to the film medium itself (Time, Croce, Houston), or by the director's all-out attack on an outmoded cinematic discourse (Godard) or attempt to allow his film to breathe freely (Guillemot).

The "inside dopester" explanations (1 and 2 above) are the most amusing and have the same appeal as a juicy bit of gossip which casts a celebrity in an unflattering light. They are also as reliable as gossip, and probably tell more about the personal tastes and aversions of the critic than about the defamed subject.

Godard's own account of the jump cuts in relation to the postproduction process (3) clearly deserves a higher status, particularly since it is neither self-promoting nor designed to discredit anyone else. That does not mean, however, that it should be taken entirely at face value as the last word on the jump cuts, even if it is a full and accurate account as to how they came about, since it tells us nothing about the way in which the jump cuts work within the film.

The approaches which focus on that are the only ones which enrich our understanding of Breathless. In this context, the transmission of anecdotal material becomes secondary, and the primary concern is on discovering the expressive properties of the jump cut, either in relation to the particular story told by the film (4) or as the cornerstone of a new esthetic (5). Here, the meaning and function of the jump cuts are given full attention, rather than factors which have no relation to the viewer's experience of the film.

This does not mean that certain explanations should be discarded in favor of others. Even explanations which are vicious or misleading are worth knowing and discussing - both because they help to heighten our appreciation of more illuminating approaches, and because it is a value in itself to contemplate as broad a spectrum of explanatory options as possible when dealing with any innovation.

Works cited

Autant-Lara, Claude. "La nouvelle vague: un préjudice énorme," in La nouvelle vague 25 ans après, edited by Jean-Luc Douin. Paris: Les éditions du Cerf, 1983; pp. 203-207.

Benayoun, Robert. "Breathless," Positif 46 (June 1962), p. 27.

Croce, Arlene. "Breathless," Film Quarterly (Spring 1961), pp. 54-56.

Crowther, Bosley. "Breathless," The New York Times (February 8, 1961).

Durand, Philippe. Cinéma et montage - un art de l'éllipse. Paris: Cerf, 1993.

Godard, Jean-Luc. Introduction à une véritable histoire du cinéma. Paris: Albatros, 1980.

Goldmann, Annie. Cinéma et société moderne. Paris: Denoël/Gonthier, 1971/1974.

Gow, Gordon. "Breathless," Films and Filming (August 1961), p. 25.

Houston, Penelope. The Contemporary Cinema. Baltimore: Penguin, 1969; orig. pub. 1963.

Moullet, Luc. "Jean-Luc Godard," Cahiers du cinéma (April 1960), pp. 25-36.

Unsigned. "Cubistic Crime," Time (February 17, 1961), p. 56.

[1] An earlier version of this article appeared on pp. 189-195 in Michelanea. Humanisme, litteratur og kommunikation (Aalborg: Alborg Universitetsforlag, 1994), ed. Inge Degn, Jens Høyrup and Jan Scheel. In the present version, I have added some interpretive and explanatory material as well as stills, and have translated all French quotations into English.

[2] When asked in 1983 about the "new wave" directors, Autant-Lara said: "I established the professional foundations for this metier in which these young gentlemen made themselves at home while throwing us out." For the entire interview conducted by René Prédal, see Claude Autant-Lara, "La nouvelle vague: un préjudice énorme," in La nouvelle vague 25 ans après, edited by Jean-Luc Douin (Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 1983), pp. 203-207.

[3] Ibid., p. 207, emphasis added. The producer in question was Georges de Beauregard.

[4] Robert Benayoun, review of Breathless in Positif 46 (June 1962), p. 27.

[5] Jean-Luc Godard, Introduction à une véritable histoire du cinéma (Paris: Albatros, 1980), p. 34.

[6] Luc Moullet, "Jean-Luc Godard," Cahiers du cinéma (April 1960), p. 35.

[7] Bosley Crowther, review of "Breathless" in The New York Times (8 February 1961), section 1, p. 26, emphasis added. On a more amusing note, Crowther described Belmondo in this review as "an actor who is the most effective cigarette-mouther and thumb-to-lip rubber since time began."

[8] Annie Goldmann, Cinéma et société moderne (Paris: Denoël/Gonthier, 1971/1974), pp. 85-86.

[9] "Cubistic Crime," Time (February 17, 1961), p. 56.

[10] Arlene Croce, "Breathless," Film Quarterly (Spring 1961), pp. 54-55.

[11] Penelope Houston, The Contemporary Cinema (Baltimore: Penguin, 1969; orig. pub. 1963), pp. 103-104.

[12] Gordon Gow, "Breathless," Films and Filming (August 1961), p. 25. Incidentally, in the same interview, Godard stated that he didn't see the editing style of this film as especially "representative of Michel's muddled mentality, although he admitted that he wouldn't have used the same technique if he had been dealing with a level-headed character."

[13] From "Entretien avec Agnès Guillemot," an interview conducted by Thierry Jousse and Frédéric Strauss, in Cahiers du cinéma (November 1990), p. 61; cited by Philippe Durand in Cinéma et montage - un art de l'éllipse (Paris: Cerf, 1993), p. 231.