He has a young woman working with him. We see them signal to each other as a woman is about to leave her car unattended. He hotwires the car when the coast is clear, and although his assistant asks to go with him, he firmly tells her no and takes off. Driving down the road, the cigar never leaving his mouth, he says "I collect the dough. I ask Patricia if it's yes or no." He debates picking up a couple of ladies hitchhiking until he gets close to them and pronounces them "both dogs." He finds a gun in the glove box and points at passing cars, mock shooting them saying "Pow. Pow."
Hitting some traffic,he attempts to keep going but the police spot him. He attempts to evade them and pulls off on a side road hoping they'll pass by. The car stalls and he needs to hot wire it again and an officer on a motorcycle pulls up to arrest him. Michel shoots the officer and runs away on foot to Paris. He ditches his hat, coat and cigar, and gets a ride to Paris, where he visits a hotel, asking for Miss Franchini's room. Finding she's out, he takes advantage of the unattended front desk and grabs her key, visiting her room to wash up and search for cash. He stops and orders breakfast, excusing himself to grab a newspaper, which he uses to shine his shoes before dropping in on a girlfriend who he asks to borrow money "until noon" She tells him he's rotten and offers a lesser amount which he tells her to keep, and then quickly grabs all the money out of her pocketbook while she has her shirt over her head, dressing. He offers to take her to breakfast knowing she's running late.
He puts on a hat and coat and finds a new cigar and then looks for Patricia Franchini, (Jean Seberg) an American girl hawking the "New York Herald Tribune" newspaper in the streets. He greets her saying "It's crazy, but I love you." asking her to go to Rome with him. She asks about his travels and asks why he's there as he hates Paris. He replies "No. but I've got enemies here." before asking her to go to Rome again. Patricia tells him she has too much to do. She walks with him while selling papers, pausing conversation to yell "New York Herald Tribune." They discuss a previous encounter.
Patricia: You're mad I left without a goodbye.
Michel: No, I was furious because I was sad.
He tells her he has to see a man in Paris who owes him money, adding that then he has to see her. She talks down the idea, stating that there are prettier girls around. Michel says "No. It's weird. I've slept with two girls since you. We didn't jive at all." He again asks about Rome and Patricia again claims too much to do. She says she has to enroll at the Sorbonne or her parents won't send money anymore.
Michel: I've got money.
Patricia: We only spent three nights together.
Michel: No, five.
Michel sees the time and says he has to go. She agrees to meet him on the street that night. Michel witnesses a hit and run, walks over takes a look at the victim along with several others, and crosses himself and walks away. He then finds a description of the motorcycle cops murder in a newspaper. He heads to a travel agency and asks for Mr. Tomalchoff, who owes him money. Tomalchoff say the money is ready. He's upset that his check is "crossed" so he has to sign it over to someone else to get it cashed. Tomalchoff mentions "Berutti" who Michel says he can't stand, although Tomalchoff thought they were friends. Michel asks to us the phone.
Two men show up looking for Michel. Tomalchoff greets them saying "Hello, Inspector." They respond asking sarcastically "In the travel business now?" The inspector tells him "Remember how you ratted on your friend Bob?" Tomalchaff gets upset and asks "What if I did?" The Inspector answers "You're going to do it again." He then asks about Michel and if he's been in to see him lately. Tomalchoff says no, and the Inspector asks the receptionist if anyone's been in to see Tomalchff. She says yes, five minutes ago, and they run to try and catch up with him.
Michel is on the street reading another paper and smoking a cigarette. He stops to look at a picture of Humphrey Bogart who's smoking a cigarette the same way.He stares at another picture for a moment as if trying to match the expression in Bogart's eyes. He meets up with Patricia,who wants him to take her out for dinner. He has to make a call first and visits a public restroom, where he mugs a man to get money for dinner and rushes back to Patricia. Walking down the street, Michel tells her a story about a man who stole money to impress a girl, noting that after he was found out she stood by him, and even helped him commit crimes in the future. Patricia suddenly remembers she has an appointment to meet a journalist on the Champs-Elysees, to go to a press conference. Michel is upset that she's leaving and tells her to meet him tonight. She says she can't but will meet him tomorrow. When she doesn't see any taxis, he offers to give her a ride. She notices that he's driving a different car, and he claims the last one is in the garage. He pushes her to let him stay with her. He tells her that he can't be without her, but she keeps contesting the idea. She gets out of the car seeing her meeting place before Michel can park.
She meets a man at a table in a restaurant, apologizing for being late. She tells the man that she's like to dig a hole to hide in. He advises her to "do like elephants do when they're sad." and vanish. She explains "I don't know if I'm unhappy because I'm not free, or if I'm not free because I'm unhappy." He tells her a story about a woman he met for lunch and forgot to suggest that she sleep with him, and remembering later, sent her a telegram telling her so,only to have her send a reply back that she had thought the same thing. The man tells her to come to the office tomorrow. Michel is in the building and sees them leaving together and then get into the man's car. He picks up another newspaper and looks over to see Patricia kissing the man before they drive off.
Patricia arrives at her room the next day and finds her key missing. When she gets in she finds Michel in her bed. She reacts calmly asking "What are you doing here?" He tells her "The Claridge was all booked up." She points out that there are other hotels and tells him he's crazy. Michel says "Don't make such a face, it doesn't suit you." Patricia stands at the mirror and asks "What's making a face?" Michel says "Going like this." and demonstrates a few funny faces for her. She then tries them herself while looking in the mirror and says "I think it suits me just fine." Michel says "You're crazier than me." Talking to himself in the bathroom mirror he says "I always fall for girls who aren't my type." He asks Patricia if she noticed that he followed her last night. She tells him not to bother her as she's thinking. Michel asks her what's wrong, but she says she doesn't know adding "I'd like to think about something but I can't seem to." Michel tells her she should've stayed with him rather than seeing the guy last night. She explains that the guy gets her articles to write, which is very important to her. Michel tells her that going to Rome with him is what's important. She says she didn't sleep with the guy. Michel tells her that he loves her, but she says she doesn't know if she loves him yet. He asks her when she will, and she tells him "Soon." He asks her why she won't sleep with him and she tells him that she's trying to figure out what she likes about him and wants them to be "like Romeo and Juliet." He insists that he can't live without her. He demands that she smile at him nut she refuses. He says he'll count to eight and if she doesn't smile he'll strangle her. He then puts his hands around her neck and counts to eight, doing a lot of stalling between seven and eight until she laughs. Michel calls her a coward and when she asks why, he says that "if a girl says that everything is fine and then can't light her cigarette, she's scared of something. "
Patricia finds Michel's passport and asks if it's his. He quickly explains that it's his brother's, although not his real brother (explaining why it says "Laszlo Kovacs") Michel lights a cigarette easily, pointing out that he's not scared. Michel continues asking her to sleep with him and she keeps changing the subject eventually telling Michel that she's just found out she's pregnant and thinks it's his baby. Michel makes a phone call to tell Tomalchaff he can't find Berutti. He informs Michel that the police were looking for him. He turns his attention back to Patricia, who is getting ready in the bathroom, then makes another call to arrange the sale of another stolen car. He turns back to Patricia who admits she's scared."It's true, I'm scared, because I want you to love me.But at the same time I want you to stop loving me. I'm very independent you know."
Michel: I love you, but not how you think.
Patricia: Then how?
Michel: Not the way you think.
Patricia: But you don't know what I think. You don't know.
Michel: Sure I do.
Patricia: No, you can't. I want to know what's behind your face. I've looked at it for 10 minutes now, and I still know nothing, nothing. I'm not sad. But I'm scared.
She tells Michel that she's writing a novel, which surprises him. She asks him if he likes William Faulkner, who he's never heard of. He's more interested in trying to take off her top, but she wants to read to him from "The Wild Palms" reading "between grief and nothing, I will take grief." and asks Michel which he would choose. After trying to change the subject, he answers that he'd choose nothing, because grief is a compromise, and he wants all or nothing. Patricia closes her eyes and tells Michel that she's trying to make everything go black, but can never make everything entirely black. She gets under the blanket with him and agrees to stay with him. Later she gets up and tells him she needs to go buy a dress. She agrees to let Michel go with her to the office to prepare for the press conference she needs to attend. They walk outside and she waits for him to get his car, not realizing that he needs to find one to steal. He eventually finds one and they go to her office.He sits in the car reading the paper, noticing that the police have put a big picture of him in it which a man on the street also seems to notice. The press conference is for a writer named Parvulesco (Jean Pierre Melville.) The reporters ask him questions about love, and the differences between men and women.
While she's at the conference, Michel goes to sell the car. The buyer however, wasn't expecting the model that Michel brought, but offers a price saying that he can't pay until next week. Michel calls him a bastard, and the man answers "What are you Mr. Kovacs?" showing Michel the picture from the newspaper. Michel asks to use the phone and looks around the office for cash. He asks to speak to Berutti, but is told that Antonio wants to meet him later. The buyer walks in on him and tells him not to bother searching. Michel attempts to drive the car away but finds the distributor cap has been removed. He punches the buyer and makes him pay for his taxi.
Michel picks up Patricia in the cab, telling the driver to step on it constantly. He tells Patricia he was in an accident, but unharmed. He has the cab stop so he can meet Berutti at the agreed upon place, but as he ran late he finds Berutti gone when he gets there and returns to the cab. Patricia needs to go back to the Herald. Michel asks her "Why bother writing?" She answers "To have money and not rely on men." Michel leaves Patricia at the Herald. Shortly after he leaves, the Inspector looking for Michel comes to see Patricia and asks if she knows Michel, showing her his picture in the newspaper. She denies knowing him initially, but when the Inspector cautions her, she identifies him, saying she wasn't sure at first because it's an old picture. The inspector asks where Michel is, but she tells him she doesn't know. She says she only met him recently and doesn't know him well. The inspector asks if she thinks she'll see him again, and she says she might. He the asks her about her working papers, suggesting that if she doesn't want passport problems, she'll call if she sees him again.
The cops then split up,one following Patricia and the other presumably looking for Michel. Michel sees this happening from across the street as he pretends to read a newspaper. Patricia sees him and points to the man following her. Patricia then loses her tail by sneaking out the window of a movie theatre restroom. She finds Michel on the street and they agree to go see a western movie after dark. The news announces that police are closing in on Michel. Patricia reads the newspaper while he drives. She asks him about his marriage, which he says was a long time ago and he can't remember who dumped who. She wonders how the police knew they were together and Michel says it was an informer. Patricia says that's horrible, but Michel says "No. It's normal. Informers inform, burglars burgle, murderers murder, lovers love." Michel decides he needs to switch cars and Patricia suggests a nearby Cadillac, which he has her drive. He tells her they need to find Antonio Berutti. Eventually they find Berutti. in the middle of setting up blackmail pictures of a businessman kissing a girl,that works with him. Michel gives Berutti the check and they agree to meet the next day at an agreed upon hideout. Patricia tells Michel she has some doubts. The next morning at the new hideout, while Michel makes calls, Patricia takes a walk and calls the inspector with their location.
She returns to the hideout and tells Michel she called the police. She explains that she doesn't want to go away with him and called the police because she doesn't want to be in love with him, claiming that being mean to him proves she doesn't love him. Michel tells her that despite claims that there is no happy love, "there is no unhappy love." She claims she's independent. Michel says "You think you are but you're not."
Michel: I'm better than you are.
Patricia: Now you have no choice but to go.
Michel: You're crazy! That's a pathetic argument. [lights a cigarette] (as he did in the hotel room, proving he wasn't scared) You're like the girl who sleeps with everyone except the one man who loves her saying it's because she sleeps with everyone.
Patricia: Why don't you go? I've slept with lots of men. Don't count on me. What are you waiting for?
Michel: No, I'm staying. I'm in bad shape. I prefer prison.
Patricia: You're mad!
Michel: Nobody'll talk to me. I can look at the walls.
He remembers Berutti, and runs out into the street to tell him to go, because Patricia turned him in. Berutti gives him his money and tries to convince him to get in the car but Michel refuses, saying "I'm fed up. I'm tired. I want to sleep." Berutti tries to offer Michel his pistol but Michel won't take it. The cops pull up and take aim at Michel. Berutti drives off throwing the pistol. Michel picks it up to throw it back at Berutti, but the police fire on him. He runs down the street after the car losing strength with each step. Patricia, hearing the shots, runs out after him. Michel falls to the ground. The police and Patricia stand over him as he looks up. Looking at Patricia, he "makes a face" as he did in her room. and says "You make me want to puke" He reaches up with his hand and closes his own eyelids, dying.
The officers repeat, He said "You make him want to puke" and she asks "What's puke?"
(There are other translations of the last lines, one has Michel saying "I'm a real scumbag." which the Inspector distorts as "He says you're a real scumbag" Patricia asking "What's a scumbag." The actual French lines are:
Michel: C'est vraiment dégueulasse.
Patricia: Qu'est ce qu'il a dit?
Inspectoe Vital: Il a dit que vous êtes vraiment "une dégueulasse".
Patricia: Qu'est ce que c'est "dégueulasse"?)
What we see here is not accidental, the unpredictable score draws attention to signs as we pass them. We get the sense that these characters view life as a movie almost as much as we see their lives that way. We see only what we're shown, a fact which Patricia alludes to when she says, " I want to know what's behind your face. I've looked at it for 10 minutes now, and I still know nothing, nothing. I'm not sad. But I'm scared." It's difficult to really know anything, especially who someone is, particularly a man who painstakingly imitates the movie gangster look. The pivotal scene in the film is the long conversation in Patricia's room, and it revolves around the question "would you choose grief over nothing?" Michel quickly agrees and his all or nothing choice is confirmed by his actions. Michel spends most of his time "just doing" stealing cars, shooting a cop on the spur of the moment. He is madly in love with Patricia, but he doesn't want to talk about it, he wants to make love. Patricia agrees with the idea, closing her eyes, attempting to make everything go black (which she can't do) She examines ideas from others, yet can't commit to them for herself.
The ideas which inspire him are affectations, how he looks while he's trying to live. Patricia however is paralyzed by ideas she hasn't embraced, she continually mentions her "independence" yet she goes on dates with a journalist to further her career. While she loves Michel, this fact presents a dilemma. She fears that in loving another, she will lose her "independent" self. While for him, this is obvious, Patricia is doing a similar thing. She is casting herself as the independent forward thinking woman. The questions asked of Parvelesco at the press conference are not accidental, reflecting conversation on gender roles that Patricia was exposed to at the time. We are greatly influenced by culture, whether we realize it or not. The questions asked by the press are what presumably, the public wants to know. Patricia's questions about a woman's place in society, are answered by Parvelesco's fliratious compliment, which tellingly pleases her, despite not getting an answer. When Michel asks her "Why bother writing?" She answers "To have money and not rely on men." She finds the idea intoxicating, but not an easy one to live up to, craving the attention of men.
The only time that both are free of their facades is in bed, without "costumes." Yet even there, the sense of connection is fleeting. Patricia bemoans the fact that "sleeping together" is not really sleeping together, as when lovers sleep they separate. She longs for a real connection as much as she praises independence. She is so conflicted between the two ideas that she is unable to trust any feelings of her own. She agrees to stay with Michel because she sees a Romeo and Juliet story, another cultural influence. She calls the police on Michel, in order to force him to leave. It's not conceivable to her that he has embraced his "stoic tough guy" role so entirely, that he'll stay with her despite the cost of losing his freedom. Michel is as indentured to ideas as she is, however his only conflict is between the idea of "true love" and that of the "doomed loner." She doesn't realize that by calling the police she has given him a way to reconcile them. This is also a conflict of ideas well established by film noir protagonists, which Michel is certainly aware of, as evidenced when he bemoans always choosing the wrong girl. He is conflicted, but unlike Patricia, welcomes the conflict as it fulfills his chosen character.
Each of the characters chooses between grief or nothing. Michel, true to his word, chooses nothing and dies in the street receiving it. His seeming nonchalance in the face of the police closing in around him, might indicate that he'd chosen it all along. Does he really think that Patricia will go to Rome with him? Probably not, but he has to behave as if there's no other outcome possible, in all or nothing fashion. Death is the ultimate nothing, no complexities to struggle with. Patricia chooses grief, her state from the time we meet her. All of her extremes ultimately can't overcame her need for a safety net. She lives as an expatriate in Paris, yet her parents send her money. She speaks of a woman's independence, but uses her femininity as a shield. She wants to think but doesn't know what to think about. She gets swept up in adventure, but then corrects herself when she feels too free. Michel calls her a coward, using the lighting of a cigarette as the test. She admits that she's scared, but Michel's test is biased, as he has already given up. "an informer informs, a burglar burgles..." he says an attitude which allows for little interest in your own life. Michel can always light his cigarette because the way he lights it is something he's practiced in the mirror a thousand times or more.
But aside form the analytical, Michel and Patricia are simply young, stupid, naive and in love. They haven't accepted that there is any more to life than their ideals, even if they don't know exactly what they are. Love is playing second fiddle to self obsession and neither really gets that they are not the center of the universe. As Patricia says "When we talked, I talked about me, you talked about you, when we should have talked about each other.” Yet, even this idea is something of a novelty. As we see from their conversations they explore the surface of ideas, but never apply them. content to have said siomething that sounds meaningful, but unlikely to apply it. They flirt with ideas as they do with each other, as likely to entertain as dismiss them depending on the moment.
The unpredictable energy in Godard's shooting helps us feel how alive they are, as if there's nothing more important in the world than a few hours in a hotel room, finding money for dinner, or the momentary flash of a woman's neckline, while reminders of mortality happen all around them. Any moment could be the important moment, as long as you're alive. But love can cloud everything, although they likely wouldn't complain, as it leads Michel to his nothing and Patricia to her grief. It's sad that it never occurs to them that there may be more than two choices.