Criterion Month: Breathless and the Anti-Manic Pixie Dream Girl

This essay is by our guest writer, Shea Vassar. 

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is the cute and quirky love interest that skips around in films that feature moody men who long to escape their current mundane lives. This archetype has existed since the beginning of cinematic history, but did not receive a proper title until Nathan Rabin’s 2004 review of Elizabethtown (Rabin, 2007). Rabin says that “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” Though he later apologized for coining the term, Rabin was critiquing the one-dimensional female characters that are constantly displayed in the movies (Rabin, 2014). Many viewers enjoy the whimsical, fairy-like girls that seem to skip around due to their unexplainable amount of confidence. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl lacks motivation, significant or human-like flaws, and the ability to grow past their state of being simply adorable.

Many female characters that seem a bit out of the ordinary by dressing with a unique sense of style or reading a certain poet wrongly receive the Manic Pixie Dream Girl label. Sadly, viewers have grown used to seeing underdeveloped female characters who are only there to propel forward the male protagonist. This is where Breathless differs. Patricia Franchini, played by Jean Seberg, displays the Manic Pixie Dream Girl aesthetic: her blonde hair is cut in a short pixie style and she studies journalism at the Sorbonne. She also enjoys talking of romanticism and philosophy and her American status just adds to her appeal. But Patricia is not a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

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Michel Poiccard, portrayed by Jean-Paul Belmondo, is a bad boy criminal who admires Humphrey Bogart so wholeheartedly he has even taken on his infamous mannerism of running his thumb across his lips. After killing a policeman who was chasing him for automobile theft, he goes to Paris to collect some cash and convince Patricia to escape with him to Italy. These intentions by the main male protagonist create a situation where a beautiful, ditzy Manic Pixie Dream Girl could easily complete his ideal story, allowing Michel to ride off into the sunset with luck on his side and a wonderful woman he can take advantage of due to her lack of depth. He chooses Patricia because he was intrigued by her after a fling where she left the next morning without so much as a goodbye. He sees her as an object without any hopes or dreams, simply a tool that can fulfill his needs at this moment. This comes across during a particular instance where Michel yet again tries to convince her to come to Italy with him. Patricia states she has to enroll at the Sorbonne for the next semester but Michel sees that as a bad excuse. Because Michel does not see Patricia as a real person, but rather as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, anything she seems to want is not as important as his personal matters at hand.

About halfway through the film, it is hard to decide what motivates Patricia. She likes art, which is posted all over her walls, and William Faulkner, who she quotes to Michel in her tiny Parisian flat. “Listen,” she says. “The last sentence is beautiful. ‘Between grief and nothing, I will take grief’”. When she asks her rebellious companion which he would choose he states nothing, admitting his fear of feeling any sort of emotion. None of Patricia’s statements are expressed with total confidence, but linger as she keeps them close to her thoughts, allowing the audience to savor the ideas. Her constant change of outfits, from her New York Herald Tribune work uniform to the simple striped shirt and finally, the fantastic dress that is seen until the finale is representative of her trying on different selves to see which one fits.

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Patricia is insecure yet strong, discovering the parts of herself she did not know existed but still fighting fear of the unknown. “I don’t know if I’m unhappy because I’m not free, or if I’m not free because I’m unhappy,” she states casually to her supervisor at a cafe. Patricia is at a turning point in her young adult life. She could choose complacency, and go along with Michel’s plan to flee abroad, or she could choose the dedicated path towards becoming the liberated and independent woman, free from toxic men like Michel. This complicated crossroad is the conflict that Patricia cannot seem to settle within herself, and her motivation lies in making the correct choice in this complicated existential question.

Manic Pixie Dream Girls do not have this type of inner turmoil that could change their entire way of living. They are complacent, showing no signs of opportunity outside of their male counterpart because the cinematic world they exist in has not allowed for any depth. They also do not long to solve their contradictory feeling mainly because they do not have any, again, a flaw of their entire existence. The films that feature the Manic Pixie Dream Girl know that if she is to aspire to more then she would outshine the main protagonist and the entire plot would fail.

In the end, Patricia chooses to put herself before Michel. Whilst galavanting around Paris, the pair find a location to stay hidden during the police department’s fervent search for Michel. His name is blasted on the front of newspapers and electronic billboards, meaning the two must escape for Italy as soon as possible. Then, Patricia makes a bold decision — she calls the cops. There is a moment where this outcome is foreshadowed — Patricia puts on a Mozart record and Michel asks if she would like to go to bed. She makes a comment about how sleeping together is actually a horrible term for the act, showing her separation from Michel. Then, for a split second she breaks the fourth wall by looking at the camera with sad eyes and a hopeful smirk. This break shows that Patricia is aware of herself and her environment. Her growth is so magnificent that the audience must now see that she is a person, a fully developed character who is making a difficult decision to betray the ideas of her companion. Just a few minutes later, she is at a cafe calling the police with the location of Michel. Upon her return to the hideout spot, she confesses her actions explaining her reasoning for entertaining the idea that she would run away with a criminal. She is still confused, doubting her thoughts and actions, but she is more sure of herself. “I’m better than you, that’s why I turned you in,” she explains to Michel before insisting he leaves now to get away.

Of course, the ending is not what Patricia had hoped. Michel ends up staying around instead of making his getaway, concluding in his death by gunshots. As he lies dying in the street, he mutters the widely discussed last phrase, “C’est vraiment dégueulasse”. Many critics and theorists disagree with the meaning of this final line from Michel but the Criterion Collection edition suggests he is saying Patricia makes him want to puke. Her independence and confidence in making such a decision is sickening to him, and this seems to be what is on his mind at the time of his ‘breathless’ end.

Jean-Luc Godard is a cinephile who studied the Hollywood films that thrilled American audiences and critiqued them as a sort of self education. Major themes of the classic gangster and the beautiful film noir genres are heavy influences on Godard’s film, including Breathless, which was his first feature. The heavily influential filmmaker is also known for his critique on society along with his involvement with politics. Though the peak of controversial political films that included themes related to feminism did not exist until the late 1960’s, Breathless is a great exploration of a conscious female character. His commentary relating to toxic masculinity along with the free, independent woman is enthralling, allowing Breathless to be much more than just a silly adventure film.

In the end, Patricia is the character who sees the most growth in the film. She knows and has declared her independence, which she is now ready to live out in however it manifests. The end of the film allows the audience to savor a different type of beautiful female lead, one who is complete with motivation and confidence. She is much more than just the eccentric journalism student first seen selling newspapers on the Champs-Elysees. She now knows more about herself as a free woman, ready to take on the world and continue to do what is best for her. Patricia Franchini is the Anti-Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

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