Breathless and Blade Runner: On the Edge of Society
The revolutionary French artistic movement ‘Nouvelle Vague’ or ‘New Wave’ appeared in the 1950s and brought significant changes in the world cinema tradition. Directors of the new generation produced works that defied the conventional camera practice, narration, characters and their morality. The ideas of ‘Nouvelle Vague’ correspondingly affected the Hollywood film style, provoking the emergence of the ‘New Hollywood’ age in the 1960s. Films of both movements depict characters in connection with the social and political circumstances and present new perspectives of value systems. Thus, À bout de souffle or Breathless, a 1960 film by Jean-Luc Godard, drew a wide response with its innovative style and introduced an unusual type of protagonist, whose distinctive feature is non‑conformism and opposition to the established social rules. The same applies to the main hero of the famous cult film Blade Runner by Ridley Scott, released in 1982 at the beginning of the epoch of corporate blockbusters. The difference lies in the contexts of the movies. Blade Runner argues ethics of the future genetic engineering civilization, while Breathless describes morals of the outsiders from the contemporary European society.
The central ethical problem raised in the film Breathless is the choice between traditional moral principles coupled with law-obedience and rebellion against society. The hero struggles for his individuality and capability to live in accordance with his convictions.
The protagonist, Michel Poiccard, is a young delinquent, who steals and resells cars. The film starts with Michel returning to Paris from southern France to collect the debt from an old companion of his, who is a criminal too. On the way, he drives a stolen car and breaks the road regulations; consequently, he ends up being chased by police. In his desperate attempt to escape and not get into prison, Michel kills a police officer in cold blood and, seemingly, without remorse. Afterwards he arrives in Paris and carelessly proceeds with his affairs. In the meantime, he becomes wary and cautious, since the police has detected his identity and is hunting him; but no thoughts about the repentance and atonement for his sin of murder occur to him.
Observing Michel’s habits and behavior, one might say that he represents a highly nihilistic and self-willed personality, indeed. Michel steals cars and robs innocent people as quick and easy as ordinary people buy newspapers; he cheats his old girlfriend and steals her money without ceremony. He breaks the rules whenever he wishes to get rid of the society’s restrictions. Morrey (2005) states that his lifestyle is that of a romantic free rogue, and his ideals appear to be similar to the American-movie gangsters (p.9). Sterritt asserts that Michel is not a violent criminal nor is going to become one in the future, since his attitude is rather “childlike” (1999, p.48). Namely, his childness reveals itself in his naïve demanding a girl’s love, clumsy dealing with police persecutors and endeavors to look like a tough guy (Sterritt, 1999, p.48). Therefore, Michel arouses sympathy, notwithstanding his offences. He commits immoral acts, but he might be not an amoral person at heart.
Finally, Michel can be seen as a representative of the new age in French social and political life, the instability and uncertainty of which influenced many young people, forcing them to establish their own beliefs and morals. He is lost and left on his own, searching for freedom and sincerely believing that a new place brings a new life. Marie (2000) describes the character of Michel Poiccard as “the one who is cursed, the one who brings bad luck (‘la poisse’)” (p.166). That means that Michel’s fate is already predetermined: with such position and credo, he will not endure long and have to yield to the system, probably by breaking himself.
The primary ethical question that the film Blade Runner poses is whether humans should equate the living beings that they have created with themselves, fully integrate them in the society and grant the same rights and privileges. Alternatively, shall they be treated only as artificial slaves and their murder be considered as a mere disposal of faulty and worn-out devices? The main hero’s behavior is based on the development of these questions.
The protagonist, Rick Deckard, is an officer of special police department, whose job is to track down and exterminate the artificial humans – “replicants” that penetrate the Earth illegally. In other words, he is a cold-blooded bounty hunter of the future. On the one side, his targets are not humans, and on the other side, they look, behave and feel like humans. Their main task is to work for humans, to assist them in the dangerous places in the extra-terrestrial colonies. Nevertheless, they are forbidden to retire or return to the Earth; and their life-span amounts to merely four years. In the meanwhile, they are able to experience the same emotions as humans, to suffer and rejoice; they strive for the self-identification and long life. Therefore, Deckard’s morality faces the sin of murder and inhumane cruelty, and he has to decide for himself, whether his actions are justified in terms of universal values.
From the beginning, it can be seen that Deckard is not entirely devoted to his profession. Perhaps, having dealt with many incidents and killed many replicants, he prefers a peaceful lifestyle in an unofficial retirement. It is possible that he is already aware of unfairness of both his actions and the society principles, at least, at the subconscious level (Brooker, 2005, p.6). He undertakes a new mission under pressure of the authorities and persuades himself that he will quit the job, when he gets completely tired of it. However, after starting the investigation, Deckard simply immerses in his past method of operation and stops paying attention to the circumstances. He does his usual work, like a hired private detective. The situation fully changes, when he encounters Rachael, the latest replicant model. Then happens what Francavilla calls a “turning point in Deckard’s development of conscience” (Kerman, 1997, p.11). Rachael asks him, “Have you ever retired a human by mistake?” and later inquires whether he tested himself for a replicant status. In this way, she actually forces him to identify himself with his victims. Later, Deckard comes into close contact with Rachael, compels her to intimacy and reveals his dark side. Still, it quite corresponds to the habits of those days. That is, humans often treat replicants meanly, and the Deckard’s case is not a striking exception. Consequently, Deckard is also not an amoral hero, just an ordinary man of his time.
Suddenly, Deckard realizes that he regards Rachael not as a replicant, but as a real woman, and that he loves her and cares for her. Then, since Deckard places Rachael at the same level as human beings in his perception, he finds it uneasy to continue killing replicants. He begins to experience the problem of self-identification. It is the first step in revising and re-estimating his profession and the society basics.
In Breathless, there is a young American student, Patricia Frankini, whom Michel is in love with, or, at least, he thinks so. Michel intends to persuade her to run away with him to Italy. For that purpose, Michel resorts to the rough seduction, he is persistent and obtrusive, and he follows Patricia at every step, rejecting traditional ethical rules of courtship. However, she does not protest against his approaches, as she likes him, too. The problem is that Michel does not disclose his real occupation to Patricia, deceiving her by playing the role of a rich guy.
In the meantime, Michel is deeply in love with Patricia and does not want to leave her at all costs. Barr notes that Michel virtually strives for the love and bright future, only his way of achieving that is ineffective and “compromised” (1998, p.223). When Patricia discovers the Michel’s identity, she decides to give him away to the police, so that she can continue her journalistic career without blackening her reputation. After he has learned that, Michel chooses to stay with Patricia all the same. He is tired and feels no desire for running and hiding; at last, he is ready to face the consequences of his actions. It may be regarded as Michel’s ethical recovery.
“I’m staying. I’m in bad shape. I prefer prison.” (Michel).
The police arrive simultaneously with his friend and aims at Michel. Having picked up the gun that was thrown to him by the friend, Michel eventually accepts the challenge and puts himself under the policemen’ fire (they will not shoot, unless he is armed). In the end, he surrenders to his fate and dies (Barr, 1998). Sterritt stresses that Michel, as well as Patricia, follows the path that was predestined to him, and he does not control the course of his life, rather goes with the stream (1999, p.60).
In Blade Runner, Deckard experiences the second significant encounter. He contends with Roy Batty, the leader of the criminal group of replicants, who escaped from their colony and came to the Earth in violation of the law. Batty is a complicated character, “a Promethean hero with a noble, tragic fate” (1997, p.11). According to his words, he has witnessed numerous incredible events that the majority of earthmen have not even dreamed of. After all, Batty seems to be much nobler than any other film characters: being in the pursuit of long life, chiefly for his beloved, he kills his creator in a righteous anger, but does not try to get power or take vengeance on the humanity; on the contrary, he saves Deckard’s life. Batty shows an unprecedented compassion to his enemy, and Deckard, naturally, cannot but understand it. Before that, Batty, while hunting Deckard, demonstrates him how much all the replicants suffer.
“Quite an experience to live in fear. That’s what it is to be a slave.” (Batty).
Since the moment of his rescue, Deckard becomes conscious of his unjust prejudice to replicants and his mistake in treating them as non-humans. He realizes that he has practically been a blind murderer all this time. That thought repels him so much that he is ready to run away with Rachael and leave the sinful and ruthless city. At this moment, Deckard displays his nihilistic tendencies by rejecting the society’s principles, by fighting for his spiritual freedom.
In general, both protagonists confront the existing systems for different reasons. Michel desperately tries to live to his heart’s desire in defiance of any rules. One fragment of the film displays a poster that Michel passes by (Fig. 1). That poster represents the essence of Michel’s way of life: to live fast and recklessly in constant danger.
Figure 1. Screenshot from the film Breathless (1960).
However, Michel finally becomes aware that his life is bereft of meaning. In the end, he feels weariness and has no powers to struggle. Therefore, he yields to the laws of his society and is likely to change his beliefs or to pass away out of this world, which does not suit his ideal.
“I’m fed up. I’m tired. I want to sleep.” (Michel)
Deckard understands the imperfection and injustice of the current value system and renounces his membership in the society. He gains a victory over his former unconscious immorality and chooses a new life far away, just as Michel imagines a bright future in Italy. It is supposed that his decision is “doomed to failure” (Brooker, 2005, p.6), because replicants do not live long. An old cop Gaff, Deckard’s colleague, reminds him that at the end of the film.
“Too bad she won’t live! But, then again, who does?” (Gaff).
In addition, it is necessary to notice that whereas both films describe the person’s searches of his or her place in the society, they slightly differ in the scope of the social and cultural context. According to Brooker, Blade Runner reflects numerous historical events, and its characters may be compared with various archetypes in human culture (2005, p.3). While Breathless deals with relatively present problems, Blade Runner envisages the future that is quite possible, taking into account the scientific and technical progress. Therefore, Blade Runner gets the audience thinking about the fundamental principles and values of human civilization and gives rise to yet unresolved disputes.
To sum up, films of the French ‘New Wave’ and the ‘New Hollywood’ era contend the conventional social and value systems. In the movies Breathless and Blade Runner, the protagonists oppose the traditional morals in attempt to express their individualities and harmonize their lives in accord with their own views and convictions. When doing that, they often allow themselves to commit apparently immoral acts. However, in the end, they reconsider their deeds and change their standpoints correspondingly, either partially conceding to the society (Michel) or entirely rejecting it (Deckard). Nonetheless, they both resign to their fate and, thus, give no clear solution to the problem. After all, everyone should decide for oneself.