It took several decades for the degenerate American film culture that had replaced golden age Hollywood to get around to bastardizing Jean-Luc Goddard’s existential French New Wave masterpiece, Breathless (1960), but when the denizens of dreck had their way, the results were nothing short of a doozy. Jim McBride’s gaudy/tawdry 1983 remake is a tragic mix of clichés and hyperbole with more than a little sex thrown in; the unconventional, if trendsetting precepts in Goddard’s creative investment made the brunt of a very bad in-joke. As a substitute for Paris in the original film, with its perennially quaffed mademoiselles and dapper Dan’s looking resplendently fresh as a summer’s rain, if as rancid on the inside as a cookie full of arsenic (to quote another famous movie), McBride has relocated his audience to the inhospitable seedy/greedy underbelly of Los Angeles, a fairly filthy steel and concrete dystopian pit of iniquity, where the smelly, the sad, and, the beefcake roam unattached.
In lieu of the unimaginably cool and equally as cruel Michel Poiccard, an unrepentant petty criminal (played with spectacular restraint by Jean-Paul Belmondo), McBride force feeds us Richard Gere, reconstituted as a juvenile and very psychotic social misfit; two parts flatulent gasbag, drunk on his own self-importance, to one part would-be arrogant hipster/heartbreaker. Whereas Belmondo (a diminutive 5 ft. 8 inches) exuded chic animal magnetism singed with dangerous electricity, wholly convincing as the necessary elixir for a young American gamin’s (played by Jean Seberg in the 60’s original) fickle heart, Gere’s soulless and kooky rebel rouser – hell-bent, self-obsessed, frustratingly devoted to his comic book icon – the Silver Surfer – and rockabilly music, is little more than an angry lost mongrel his gal pal has no problem sending back to the pound.
Not that McBride’s revamped ingénue, Monica Poiccard (played with self-effacing and camouflaged bewilderment by the perpetually towheaded Valérie Kaprisky) is up to the challenge that is Gere’s Jesse Lujack. Kaprisky, who spends a good deal of her time stepping in and out of various stages of undress to illustrate some of her more obvious assets, is an affront to Seberg’s delicious ice princess. The flat-chested Seberg never needed to flash us in this cheaply erotic fashion (not that she could), because her brains are all in her head rather than her headlamps. Hence, Seberg’s heroine remains a free-spirited (but still free ‘thinking’) woman of merit. When she surrenders to Belmondo, it’s because the power of his rough-hewn charm is enough to captivate, distract and burrow its way deep into her heart as well as her loins. But Seberg’s ingénue is always left with residual guilt after their playful badinage. Kaprisky’s Monica is merely a pheromone-challenged creature of habit, addicted to the hot sex instead of the man who can provide it. Any man will therefore do as long as he can do the nasty with a smile. Kaprisky slinks like an alley cat, but without the brains or maturity to realize a real man wouldn’t look her over twice without haggling over the price.
There’s really no point in comparing the two versions of Breathless beyond their shared title; the steamy sex appeal of Goddard’s original traded in for some sweat-soaked knickers left in a ball under the bed; our two stars defrocked of their eroticism by the obviousness in showing us their fury full-frontals and repeatedly hammering home the point – as well as each other into the box spring – with a sort of sexual morbidity. The sex is distasteful because it smells of opportunism. Here are two people who can die in each other’s arms – figuratively and literally – but are inscrutably unwilling to give their lives to one another completely beyond a few moments of violent love-making. Richard Gere’s cornball tough guy act, with his penchant for vintage clothes and cars is a far cry from Belmondo’s wounded, though gutsy and enterprising car thief. The difference is subtle, though worth noting: Belmondo’s Michel is leading with his chin; Gere’s Jesse is letting the smaller of his two heads do all of his thinking.
In the original Breathless, there is no question Belmondo’s artless drifter is a cold-blooded cop killer with little, if any, remorse to spare. The murder is incidental to him, just something he needs to do to escape capture. Presumably to spare Gere a similar fate, or rather, realizing Gere is no Belmondo, the McBride/L.M. Kit Carson screenplay has Jesse Lujack clumsily misfire a pistol he discovers in the glove compartment of a newly stolen Porsche, pumping a single lethal round into the chest of the unsuspecting police officer who has pulled him over for a not-so-routine traffic violation. Whoops and the glimmer of conscience later, our Jesse is in for a very bad time, dogged by the omnipotent presence of Lt. Parmental (John P. Riley), and proving there is at least a shrivel of ethics in his crazy wild man. Unlike Belmondo’s sexy rascal, Gere’s bizarre wannabe hipster can’t speak a word of French. Regrettably, he does only marginally better with English.
But he is hot for Kaprisky’s repeatedly bagged Parisian tart. Herein, a euphemism from Lerner and Lowe’s My Fair Lady will suffice: “The French don’t care so much what they do, as long as they pronounce it correctly!” Kaprisky’s Monica is a Fulbright/half-bright scholar. Slumming it with Jesse Lujack has certainly been an education. But is it a lifestyle? Can it be a life? These are serious questions, superficially glossed over when Monica discovers she may be pregnant. But Kaprisky’s take on this naïve Suzy Creamcheese (or Crepe Suzette, as the case may be) is little more than a double-jointed crotch jockey, professing standoffish innocence while playing a perilous game of cat and mouse with her highly unstable lover, and keeping another potential hopeful, milquetoast benefactor, Paul (William Tepper) waiting in the wings. Alas, Monica could barely stay sincere much less conjugate it with a French accent. Leslie Caron, she’s not!
Breathless hails from a particular ilk in American film-making: a real ‘tits and ass’ peepshow for the twenty-something stunted adolescent male, unable to go all the way in indulging his fetishisms for soft core porn (for fear his girlfriend, wife or mother will find out) but who has no quam about getting in touch with his inner horn dog and outer appendages inside a darkened theater; the communal atmosphere breeding the even more misguided conviction he is a ‘patron of the arts’. Don’t know much about art? How about what you like? Fascinatingly, for a movie meant to appeal to young rebels without a clue, the film’s focus is heavily slanted toward Richard Gere – then considered the hot bod of his generation until the whole ‘gerbil’ rumor put a rather androgynous question mark beside his pin-up status. In Breathless, he’s channeling all the high stakes frenetic energy of a wired Jack Russell terrier caught in perpetual motion; jumping up and down, panting heavily, and hoping to hell Monica will throw this dog a bone – or, at the very least, allow him access to a very warm spot to bury his. If all this double entendre is apt to make even a sailor blush, might I be even bolder to suggest skipping the movie altogether (not a bad idea anyway), because the opinions glibly expressed in this review recede to the despicably distracting amounts of gratuitous on-screen nudity meant to detour the audience from the fact this movie’s premise is wobbly at best.
There’s an interminable duration of ‘sex for sex sake’, the camera ogling Gere and Vaprisky – either together or apart – loosely clutching bed sheets or remnants of their skimpy unbuttoned apparel (please, no false modesty here!) before tossing both their unmentionables and virtually all their inhibitions, plus caution aside, in the way a dirty old peeper or 42nd Street subway flasher might, as he trolls for the perfect middle-aged frump to shock. If anything, McBride’s heavy-handed approach to the sex in Breathless proves the careworn axiom ‘less is more’ because his idea of ‘more’ has all but diffused Goddard’s infinitely more sensualistic scintillations; a very classy affair by comparison. Indeed, Goddard’s film leaves one feeling breathless. McBride’s revamp, merely creates an unwelcomed wet stain in one’s shorts. It would all be quite amusing if not for the fact most of this movie plays like a very bad and truly tasteless sacrilege and desecration of the original.
It all begins to unravel almost from the moment the neon credits, meant to invoke the comic book ambiance, give way to the bleak Nevada landscape, bathed in unhealthy cartoon tangerine hues; Jesse, using a ditzy Vegas call girl (Nora Gaye) to rip off a couple of yahoos by stealing their Porsche, destined for the chop-shop. Jesse hightails it for the desert, listening to old rock/pop tunes on the radio and speeding too recklessly toward his rendezvous with destiny. Oh yeah… this fuzzy, beer-induced ‘feel good’ won’t last. Passing a carload of aroused college girls on the shoulder of a darkened highway, presumably meant to impress them, Jesse’s hijinks instead attract the unwanted attentions of a state trooper (Robert Mark Quesada), who is effective at running Jesse off the road. Alas, such good fortune will reverse itself to the detriment of both men; Jesse remembering his discovery of a loaded revolver in the glove compartment and reaching for the weapon; the officer urging him to reconsider his next move. About to surrender, the gun in Jesse’s hand instead goes off with accidental accuracy, fatally wounding the trooper. From this moment on, Jesse – by all accounts a misguided, but third-rate car thief, fundamentally meaning no harm – can now add cop killer to his resume. He is a hunted man.
But where to run? To UCLA, of course, by way of a dingy little apartment belonging to a casual flame: Monica Poiccard – an aspiring architect. Jesse wastes no time interrupting Monica’s presentation to the university’s board of directors. Pretending to have been sent by the campus AV department to collect some furniture for another presentation in another room, Jesse knocks the board’s review papers to the ground, seizing the portable card table in his hands and spills a coffee tureen and a full pot of blue ink into the white-trouser lap of its eldest committee member. It’s Richard Gere’s finest moment in the movie, playing to his acting strengths as an arrogant and disarming prick, lacking the necessary brainpower to fire two successive neurons at once. Afterward, Jesse stalks Monica as he observes the rather transparent advances made by her professor, Paul, who would like to teach her more than a few curved angles in the classroom. Jesse is the jealous type…or is he? He teases Monica about her intensions toward Paul and vice versa, but then makes several lighthearted (or perhaps lightheaded) attempts to force himself back into her life (or is it, only her boudoir?). His seduction is momentarily – if clumsily – avoided as Monica returns to her apartment alone to prepare for her prearranged appointment with Paul at the Bonaventure Hotel. Alas, Jesse is waiting outside Monica’s apartment building in yet another stolen car meant to impress her.
Promising to chauffeur Monica to the Bonaventure, Jesse instead makes a detour to a greasy spoon where he intends to hit up his paymaster, Tony Berrutti (Gary Goodrow) for the necessary quick cash to get out of town. There, he learns from another contact, Carlito (Miguel Piñero) the police have been around twice already asking questions. Without any prior knowledge of his whereabouts or documented eyewitness accounts of his complicity in the desert murder, Lt. Parmental and Sgt. Enright (Robert Dunn) already seem to know Jesse is their man. Incredible piece of deduction, Watson. These boys must be channeling the Psychic Friends Network for clues! Alas, Berrutti is a no show and unlikely to surface in the near future, leaving Jesse frazzled; his sulky mood turning to embittered sexual frustration after he spies on Monica’s date with Paul, following them out of the hotel and quietly observing as Monica opens herself to Paul’s affections. Ironically, Jesse is only momentarily disturbed by what he sees, turning for inspiration to the latest edition of the comic, The Silver Surfer at an all-night newsstand where he encounters a smart-mouthed kid (Georg Olden) who rudely tells him his hero ‘sucks’.
Breaking into Monica’s apartment, Jesse proceeds to show her what she has been missing in her antiseptic affair with Paul. She admonishes Jesse for his chutzpah and make for the pool. Jesse follows; cinematographer, Richard H. Kline’s interminable series of close-ups on Monica’s wriggling thighs and flexing buttocks rippling beneath the waterline, and set to Jack Nitzsche’s saxophone-infused pornographic underscore, leaving little discrepancy as to which part of Kaprisky’s anatomy fascinates our Jesse most. He ogles Monica for a few brief moments like a hungry stray in search of raw meat, allowing himself to be pulled into the pool before hurrying back upstairs where the couple proceeds in some heavy petting, momentarily thwarted by a ringing telephone and then Paul’s reluctant voice on Monica’s answering machine, thanking her for ‘last night’. Jesse throws the answering machine out the window before ravaging a willing Monica with a frenetic series of submissive hugs, tussles and a bump and grind that leaves nothing to the imagination. Afterward, he encourages Monica not to shower before she sees Paul again. Monica has, in fact, agreed to meet Paul at a proposed construction site at the city’s downtown core, presumably to be introduced to maestro architect, Dr. Boudreaux (Eugène Lourié) as his next potential protégée. When Monica explains she has long desired an audience with the great man, he asks her why. “Because I want to study and make buildings that will last,” is her naïve reply. “Nothing lasts!” Boudreaux explains with a sad-eyed clairvoyance for the film’s finale, of course, avoiding the fact we still have the pyramids, the ancient Mayan temples, the Roman coliseum and other untold architectural riches intact from centuries of human evolution. But, I digress.
In the meantime, the police are closing in on Jesse. A drunk on the steps of a church recognizes Jesse from his picture in the papers. Later, a Chinese convenience store owner (James Hong) will pick out Monica from a similar mug shot on the front page of the L.A. Times. Jesse confronts Birnbaum (Art Metrano); the proprietor of an auto graveyard, offering him a real sweet deal on his latest stolen car. Birnbaum agrees the vintage auto will fetch a handsome price but suggests he cannot advance him any cash as yet. Jesse’s too hot to handle. It would not be in his best interest to align his ‘legal’ business dealings with a cop killer. Feeling cheated, Jesse pursues and beats up Birnbaum, discovering a sizable wad of cash stuffed down his gaudy Hawaiian shorts. Next stop – Mexico…well…maybe. Jesse still needs Berrutti to cash his check. The police question Monica about Jesse, assuring her they already know she is an accomplice after the fact. Still, she protects Jesse by lying to the police that he has gone to San Francisco. After all, she’s carrying his child. And hope – if not love – springs eternal. Jesse could turn his life around. They could be happy together…maybe, though not likely.
The pair discovers Berrutti hosting a rave in a downtown garage. He agrees to cash Jesse’s check but cannot do it until morning. Parmental and Enright close in, but after making a harrowing nighttime getaway on foot, Jesse steals yet another car and takes Monica to a hilltop retreat; reportedly, the abandoned derelict where Errol Flynn’s palatial estate once stood. There, the two argue about the future; Monica suddenly realizing she has made a tragic mistake in placing her trust in this overgrown adolescent with no real plans for the future other than to stay alive and screw his brains out. When Jesse sends Monica on foot to a nearby corner store for some morning treats, she knows what she must do; telephone the police and turn Jesse in. However, she then returns to Jesse’s side and confides her moment of weakness to him. Berrutti arrives with Jesse’s check cashed, also with a pistol for his protection. At first, Jesse refuses to accept the weapon. But as Berrutti tosses it and drives away, Parmental and Enright arrive with several police cruisers to take Jesse by force. As Monica looks on, Jesse does a garish pantomime of Jerry Lee Lewis’ Breathless, toying with his decision to reach for the discarded weapon, but then suddenly surprising the police by diving for it; a freeze frame fading to black and leaving the outcome of this showdown in question.
As cock and bull stories go, Breathless is a ringer – not a zinger; a mindless entertainment at best. I give it an ‘F’, and I don’t mean for ‘fantastic’…or that other ‘F’ word that should immediately come to mind. Several alternative reviews praise the smoldering chemistry between Richard Gere and Valérie Kaprisky; presumably confusing on-screen sexual compatibility with the mere exchange of bodily fluids. With a few exceptions, Richard H. Kline’s clever camerawork keeps Richard Gere’s penis off the screen in all but a few quick flashes, despite the actor appearing casually au natural and flashing more than his fair share of butt crack to the audience. In the sexist 80’s, Kline’s lens is far less forgiving or even willing to sustain Kaprisky’s modesty. We see everything and from every conceivable angle. As fine and taut as she is (to paraphrase Bill Holden’s comments made to Faye Dunaway in The Towering Inferno, “Give me the architect who designed you…”) Kaprisky is no actress; just a pretty – and pretty exploitable – new face, who never made much of a splash in American movies afterward. She’s been more successful in her native France.
I really can’t say enough about Gere’s performance – it’s terrible! Here is an actor of such limited range – playing to his own PR-infused and ephemeral studliness, as though it alone can supplement his lack of presence, it’s difficult, if not wholly impossible to take his grotesque pantomime of manhood seriously. Is this guy for real? Apparently so. Setting aside the underlay of Jesse’s playful psychosis, we are left with the most telling moment in the movie; the aforementioned confrontation Gere’s misanthrope has with the skate-boarding kid at the comic book stand. At least twelve years his junior, even this moppet realizes one cannot base an entire understanding of male/female relationships on a Silver Surfer comic book. But director, Jim McBride seems determined to embellish his film with such references wherever possible; the artificiality in Gere’s very cartoony performance deliberately enhanced by some extremely bad rear projection for the more important dialogue scenes taking place between Monica and Jesse while he drives like a maniac through the sparsely populated streets of Los Angeles. John P. Ryan and Robert Dunn’s keystone coppers are straight out of the Abbott and Costello playbook; bedecked in some nauseating plaid leisure suits. Someone should have explained to these boys that ‘undercover’ does not mean you travail the streets of L.A. looking like Maria Von Trapp made your wardrobe from the left over material of a bargain basement couch.
Dare I say it? I shall: Richard Gere is no singer either, as his badly mangled interpretation of Jerry Lee Lewis’ Breathless devolves into a queasily off-putting homage to a drunken Elvis impersonator at a backyard wedding. There are worse remakes out there, I suppose. But Breathless is in a class apart, chiefly because it never takes itself seriously. We’re not particularly interested in what will happen to Jesse or Monica once the police inevitably catch up to them. He’ll likely die in a Bonnie and Clyde inspired hailstorm of bullets and she’ll settle into the dilemma of a wrap sheet, unwanted pregnancy and motherhood; her taut body aged before its time. Mercifully, director McBride spares us this bleak outlook. And in the cartoonesque mélange in which Breathless exists, it is possible to suspend belief along with all sense of good taste. Jesse could get off a few rounds to stymie these bumblers in the LAPD, take Monica under his arm in the cash n’ carry way one picks up a prostitute for the evening, and then make a run for the Mexican border. Like the Silver Surfer, unwanted and not terribly respected by the humanity he seeks to preserve, Gere’s Jesse Lujack might be as dumb, arrogant or unlucky enough to fight his way out of this implausible escape for another hapless scenario as yet to develop on the horizon. Do we care? Should we? The film offers up too few nonexistent reasons why any of what’s happened should matter.
There’s better news with Shout! Factory’s 1.85:1 Blu-ray. Apart from a few age-related artifacts, Breathless looks remarkably clean in hi-def with an, at times, ultra-vivid color palette that sincerely compliments. Cinematographer, Kline’s use of bold – at times, overpowering – primary colors is well preserved. A few brief scenes shot at night suffer from poor contrast and a bit of black crush, as well as residual softness. But overall, the image – if not the film – will surely please. Film grain looks remarkably film-like, never intruding on fine detail – both consistently rendered. The film’s eclectic soundtrack, featuring vintage rockabilly standards, gets a 2.0 mono DTS, very precisely balanced for a startlingly strong presentation with exceptional dynamic range... especially for a mono mix. There are no extras to speak of, save a badly worn and clumsily assembled trailer. Then again, I can’t imagine any that might have improved my perceptions of this turgidly realized remake!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)