One of the benefits of covering the “Jazz Score” exhibit last summer at the Museum of Modern Art was a crash course in jazz. Even with nine years of higher education majoring in music, I didn’t know the difference between East Coast and West Coast players, much less the international stars. So the name of French jazz composer Martial Solal was a revelation to me, as was his most famous film.
Jean-Luc Godard’s ABOUT DE SOUFFLÉ(1959), better known as BREATHLESS, swept onto international shores, influencing generations of filmmakers and sparking the French New Wave. Jean-Paul Belmondo stars as a small-time Paris hood on the run for killing a cop, and Jean Seberg is the young American journalist he thinks he loves.
As a counterpoint to Hollywood conventions, Godard and his cinematographer, Raoul Coutard, aimed for a new kind of realism in cinema. Their handheld camera followed the actors, capturing the realistic reactions of everyday Parisians who were unused to seeing filming on their streets. Godard further changed the look of the film with his innovative use of jump cuts, giving the film what author David Sterritt called “this sense of jagged, imperfect, unpolished, caught-on-the-run sensibility.”
Solal composed two main themes—for Belmondo’s cocky, carefree hood and Seberg’s sexy ingénue—both made up of five notes. “One is coming from the low note to the high note; the other is exactly the contrary,” said Solal in an earlier interview. “One makes you anxious; the other is romantic.”
Solal shut himself away at his desk “until I found a phrase with five notes that translated the ideas of fatality and betrayal. The rest came very quickly: I needed strings for Jean Seberg on the Champs-Elysées, some brass for the escape, and some soloists—alto saxophone or vibraphone—for the tragic side. And little by little I skimmed the personnel until I ended up with a solo piano on the love-theme for Belmondo’s murder in the Rue Campagne-Premiére. He dies in love with life, and Seberg.”
In the liner notes for the CD, Solal showed his typical modesty: “With hindsight, this score is the happy medium: it has a status in the film, and it can also be listened to without the film, if you like. But it hasn’t got the same ambition as music I’d have written without the images. Of course, you can like the different declensions of the five-note gimmick that sticks to Belmondo like a badge…It succeeds because it’s efficient, but it doesn’t have a great musical dimension. You like this music because it’s associated with a film that’s mythical. If A bout de soufflé didn’t exist, nobody would think its music was particularly interesting.”
No matter what Solal says, with its evocative music and unique style that is still fresh 50 years later, A BOUT DE SOUFFLÉ is one film classic that left me, quite unexpectedly, breathless.