Take My Breath Away: In Defence of 1983’s Breathless

In 1960, the history of cinema was changed dramatically by the arrival of one film, Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 film, À Bout De Soufflé. Co-written with Francois Truffaut, this was the film that kicked the French New Wave into action. The film was influenced heavily by the American crime movie, its director having been inspired by such genres as Film Noir and the gangster films of the 1930s. The film’s plot was relatively simple and straightforward (as Godard most famously stated, all you need for a film is a gun and a girl). À Bout De Soufflé  follows young, romantic French hoodlum (Jean-Paul Belmondo) who shoots a cop and falls prey to a femme sort-of fatale in the inconspicuous form of an American student (Jean Seberg). If À Bout De Soufflé is considered high-end art, a cinematic masterpiece with the same signficant importance as say Citizen Kane or Vertigo, 1983’s ”remake” Breathless is a finger painting by a toddler…or that’s at least what other critics would be quick to tell you.

Richard Gere plays a flashy, Jerry Lee Lewis-obsessed, comic book reading car thief lamming it but kept from the safety of Mexico by his inability to cash an ill-gotten paycheck and his obsessive passion for a French exchange student (Valerie Kaprisky). Unlike, Godard’s film, Breathless doesn’t take itself too seriously, zipping along at a hundred miles an hour. The director knows exactly what appeals to the ”youth” of 1980s America – gone are the overlong bloated scenes of philosophical debates, and instead the amount of chase scenes are upped.

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Whereas À Bout De Soufflé  looked like a documentary made on a shoe string budget, unheard of at the time and true example of indpendent filmmaking that there ever was, Breathless looks music-video slick and drips with style,  creating the sense of a heightened reality set on the streets of L.A. This is the nouvelle vague for the MTV generation. The story and characters in both films may seem similar, but to call the 1983 Breathless a remake is a naive assumption. The films are not the same in any shape or form; they are beasts from a different time, a different place, a different culture.

Much of Breathless success comes in the form of Richard Gere, an actor who was the height of his power, influence and attractiveness. He oozes cool, and unlike the sleaziness of Jean-Paul Belmondo’s performance in À Bout De Soufflé, Gere seems to be a man that we either want to be or be with. There is something hypnotic about his performance, the way he seems to move with preternatural confidence. He is aware of – and takes pride in – his sex appeal, but underneath that sunglasses-wearing, sports-car- driving tough guy, there’s a vulnerable, love stricken man-child who is in need of some form of love and affection. Will Monica Poiccard (Valérie Kaprisky) provide him with that affection, or is she stringing him along for her own ride? Monica is a complex character but her behaviour is never fully explained, and she just seems a little too erratic.

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Jesse seems out-of-place in the seedy LA world he inhabits –  his style is drops of Elvis mixed with Jerry Lee, and it sticks out like a sore thumb. Even his garish vintage clothes are part of a general rebellion against, well, everything, including the changing times. Jesse represents the growing pains society in the early 1980s was facing — the Baby Boomers were longing for simpler times, but Generation X was beginning to appear. Everyone felt out-of-place and Jesse represents this feeling on-screen.

Jesse is also the first ”comic book fan boy” depicted on-screen, and somehow his obsession with the Silver Surfer reflects how society had changed from the worshipping of idols like Bogart to extraterrestrial beings (far out man!). Debuting in Fantastic Four #48, the March 1966 issue, the Surfer was thrown in at the last-minute by artist Jack Kirby to act as the herald to the world-devouring Galactus. The Surfer would then turn on his master, a decision that would turn the Surfer into an exile on Earth and, a year later, the star of his own book. Like his predecessor that came before him, Jesse identifies with the outsider, the hopeless romantic who is doomed to be forever alone. Perhaps the audience of 2018 would be able to connect with the 1983 Jesse more than the 1960 Michel, because of this love and appreciation for comic books. Jesse was hip before the word hipster had even been dreamed-up.

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Director Jim McBride and cinematographer Richard Kline do a superb job of capturing the vast and sprawling city of L.A. We see every aspect, from its heat and sunlight (L.A. sunsets are always wonderful to see on screen) to the wide variety of people.  From  downtown hotels and office towers to  industrial sections, the Hollywood hills and upscale West L.A., and to the beach communities (where we see what must be every mural in L.A.), we travel with Jesse and Monica through a fetish dream of the city, sun-soaked and dizzy on the concept of ‘true love’.  Fire-engine red Thunderbirds, summer dresses that flutter in the lightest of breezes and pink telephones –  this is perhaps the closest I will get in terms of a cinematic vacation in Los Angeles, with its hip jukebox joints, clear blue swimming pools and the hot summer wind blowing down empty streets.

McBride’s Breathless is very much a self-aware film; for example, there is one very meta and in your face moment which occurs when Monica and Jesse make love behind the screen of a poorly attended revival of the film noir criminal-lovers-on-the-run movie Gun Crazy. The moment is erotic, and deeply tragic at the same time…don’t these two young lovers know that they’re doomed? However, the film relies too heavily on sex and nudity, it seems laughable and distracting more than anything else. Overall, I don’t quite know what to make of Breathless, but I can confirm that it’s not a remake of À Bout De Soufflé, not by a long shot.

 

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