Breathless 

Film history isn’t a highlight reel of universally agreed-upon classics. It’s an epic story. But some chapters of the story draw more attention than others. Secret Cinema is a column dedicated to shining a light on compelling little-noticed, overlooked, or faded-from-memory movies from years past. Let’s talk about the films nobody’s talking about.

It’s one of those weird twists of cinematic fate that a generation of viewers first encountered Breathless as a piece of oft-programmed, nudity-filled, late-night cable fare. How strange that Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 feature debut—released in France as À Bout De Soufflé, kick-starting the French New Wave and almost instantly opening up the possibilities of how a film could look and even what a film could be—would have a second life as a heavy-breathing entry in an HBO sex-and-violence slot, something that could easily be dropped between Porky’s 2 and Forced Vengeance. And strangely fitting, too. After all, Godard and Francois Truffaut, who co-wrote the script, drew on disreputable American B-movies for inspiration, using a lovers-on-the-run plot as the spine of a movie-obsessed sideways take on an American crime film. And now, in a different form, it had gone where disreputable B-movies go.

At least that’s how I felt about the 1983 version of Breathless until I watched it. “Remake” might not even be the right word to describe what director Jim McBride and his co-writer, L.M. Kit Carson, are up to with Breathless. Nick Pinkerton’s Village Voice appreciation of McBride calls it a returned serve in a transatlantic volley, and that’s closer to the heart of things. In Godard’s film, Jean-Paul Belmondo plays a Bogart-obsessed guy in the lower reaches of the French underworld who shoots a cop and falls prey to a femme sort-of fatale in the inconspicuous form of an aspiring American journalist (Jean Seberg). In the 1983 version, Richard Gere plays a flashy, Jerry Lee Lewis-obsessed car thief lamming it from Las Vegas to Mexico by way of Los Angeles after his own fatal encounter with a highway patrolman, but kept from a safe escape by his inability to cash an ill-gotten paycheck and his obsessive passion for a French student (Valerie Kaprisky) studying architecture at an L.A. college.

Were the inverted parallels to stop there, it might have merely been a cultural exchange on par with Kurosawa’s Yojimbo getting turned into an Italian’s version of an American Western or Scorsese remaking Hong Kong’s Infernal Affairs as The Departed. Instead, the U.S. Breathless doggedly tries to translate the original’s self-referential games and pop-culture fixations into the language of something that could play at an ’80s shopping mall’s four-plex. McBride’s Breathless looks music-video slick, the cool backgrounds contrasting with a combustible performance by Gere (as protagonist Jesse Lujack). But the slickness grows mesmeric and the performance unexpectedly wrenching as each trip Gere takes in a succession of classic cars brings him ever closer to his fate, a fate sealed the moment he drops a gun on top of a Silver Surfer comic while speeding through the desert to the accompaniment of Jerry Lee Lewis in the same type of Porsche that James Dean rode to his death. We know he’s not getting out of this movie alive, but he might find some meaning before he leaves it.

I’d forgotten, given how small and contained his performances have become, the forceful actor Gere used to be. You see flashes of the old Gere in his Chicago performance, but the strutting physicality on display here is something else. Gere moves with preternatural confidence, painfully aware of his own animal magnetism. And he moves nearly constantly in Breathless. When he doesn’t move he talks, rolling variations on the same come-on as he tries to lure Kaprisky’s Monica to Mexico. He’s selling himself and a dream life far away from the world trying to take him down. Just make the choice, baby, and everything will be all right forever.

That he looks to the ’50s for his idols—dropping hints of Elvis into his Jerry Lee-inspired persona—feels right for the character, a hustler out of step with the decade in which he’s landed. He wears garish vintage clothes as part of a general rebellion against, well, everything, but maybe especially the changing times. Gere has cobbled together a vision of cool from various corners of the ’50s—Vegas flash, Beat patter, rock ’n’ roll attitude—and swaddled it all in a cigarette haze. It’s a daring performance, one I suspect will rub a lot of people the wrong way. But it worked for me, particularly in the moments when he lets the mask drop away and he gazes at Kaprisky with a mix of fear and awe, the look of a man in love who’s all too aware of the trouble that love might mean for him.

And here’s how I know the performance is great: He’s able to make that seem heartbreakingly convincing without much help from the other side. Kaprisky is, to put it kindly, awkward here. She speaks her dialogue as if she learned it phonetically and, given that she retreated to France and stayed away from Hollywood films for the rest of her career, that might actually be the case. At times her acting seems artificial by design. At times it just seems awful. But she looks like the sort of woman who could become the object of a doomed romantic’s desire, and that’s often enough. 

Where Gere looks out of step, Kaprisky looks thoroughly contemporary, outfitted at all times in the accoutrements of 1983. She wears pink polo shirts and tops with pastel geometric shapes. When the camera lingers over her form as she rubs ice on her body, the wind blows through her blown-out hair, and a Philip Glass track fills the soundtrack, she appears moments away from turning into a Nagel print. Their characters aren’t far apart in age, but decades still divide them. She’s an obscure object of ’80s desire courted obsessively by a man stuck in other decades and beholden to the heroes of the past, some of them real, some of them comic-book characters.

Debuting in Fantastic Four No. 48, the March 1966 issue, the Silver 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 make him an exile on Earth and, a year later, allow him to star in his own book. I believe it’s a reprint of the first issue drawn by John Buscema that Gere carries throughout the movie. Expanding on the Surfer’s origin, it establishes a tragic backstory in which the silver being formerly known as Norrin Radd chose to abandon his beloved Shalla-Bal for the good of the cosmos. Then… well, I could get bogged down in comics continuity here, but let’s just say the Silver Surfer has a long history of sacrificing himself for the love of others.

Stan Lee, who wrote both the Fantastic Four issues in which the Surfer first appeared and his solo series, has talked about how the character inspired him to do his best writing. For Lee, that meant a lot of semi-Shakespearean prose, storylines in which the Surfer echoed both Jesus and the rebellious Satan of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and free-associative philosophizing about anything that came to his alliteration-prone mind. Lee—and others after him—have had trouble sustaining the Surfer’s popularity as the star of his own book, but that’s really not that surprising. The perfect hero for longhaired ’60s seekers and transcendence-seeking, out-of-their-era rebels of any stripe, he seemed always destined to be a cult star in the comic-book world. Not everyone understood the Surfer’s appeal; but those he spoke to loved him above all others.

In one memorable scene set at a newsstand, Gere defends the Silver Surfer to a no-good punk who calls the Sentinel Of The Spaceways a “jerk” who’s “nuts to hang around” when he “knows that life on Earth has no meaning,” unwittingly echoing in his criticism Jesse’s own situation and need to get out of town to save his own skin. In the film’s most tender scene, Gere reads a Surfer story with Kaprisky, treating the parallels between himself and the perpetually doomed intergalactic rebel as self-evident. 

After blazing onto the scene as Sun Records’ heir apparent to Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis found his stardom derailed by scandal, bad choices, personal demons, and an inability to compromise. When Lewis recorded Live At The Star Club, Hamburg in 1964 his star had faded, his reputation was in ruins, and he was still mourning the drowning death of his son. But he performs like a man possessed. When I saw Lewis a couple of years ago at a casino in southern Indiana, time had taken its toll on his voice, but not his playing, or his enthusiasm. At the end of the set he rose, slowly, and kicked over the piano bench as a parting gesture. Adopting “all or nothing” as a personal credo, Gere sees himself in The Killer, moving through the film as if bopping to the beat of a song only he can hear. And there’s little doubt who’s supplying the song. “Listen to this guy,” he tells Kaprisky. “He means it.” In the music of Jerry Lee Lewis he’s found a kind of authenticity he’s never found in the real world. (At the end of the decade, McBride would revisit this territory via the Lewis biopic Great Balls Of Fire!, an unsuccessful film, but one with a fair share of great moments.)

Sometimes we see our lives mirrored back to us in the most unexpected pieces of pop culture. Sometimes we try to reflect them back. Belmondo’s character in Godard’s Breathless fashions himself after Humphrey Bogart and meets a Bogart-tragic fate. Gere looks to too-fast-to-live rockers and a noble, downtrodden alien and meets a defiantly bad end of his own. McBride’s Breathless lives in the space between those reflections, and in many respects it’s the culmination of what he’d been up to since he first started making movies.

McBride first attracted attention with the 1967 film David Holzman’s Diary, in which Carson—who helped shape the film in addition to starring in it—plays the eponymous character, an aspiring filmmaker fond of quoting Godard and addicted to filming his own life. Reviewing the film in 1973, the New York Times described it as “mock[ing] those ghastly reels from the nineteen-sixties, when various film makers immortalized themselves or their friends by trying and failing to be spontaneous.” That might be accurate, but time has changed the way it looks, at least to those of us who never lived through the era of those ghastly reels. Not only has it become, in the words of critic Joshua Rothkopf, “the very object it was parodying: a lovely piece of vérité […] that captures the late-’60s Upper West Side in all its grimy glory” but also a portrait of a psyche under the strain of art damage. Who is Holzman when not on camera, imitating and dropping references to the filmmakers who inspired him, Holzman? Better question: Is there a Holzman under those circumstances?

Same question, different character: Who is Jesse Lujak removed from his pop-culture obsessions? But maybe it’s the wrong question. McBride’s Breathless is a self-aware film, but also an agonizingly romantic one. Not only can one quality not be divorced from the other; as Breathless progresses they get knotted ever more tightly together. Get past the rough patches of the film’s early scenes—particularly the scene where Gere interrupts Kaprisky in the midst of a classroom presentation, one of the few major plot additions made to the original film—and you’ll find a film with a dreamlike intensity. Much of the film’s second half is given over to a chase through L.A., first against the murals of Venice Beach, then through clubs, back alleys, and finally the space behind the screen of a poorly attended revival of the classic noir Gun Crazy. As the fatalistic lovers-on-the-lam tale unfolds above them, Gere and Kaprisky make love. Taken apart, the moment brings it all back home: the classic Hollywood films that inspired Godard, Godard’s original film, the endless play of references to other movies in which both versions of Breathless engage, and the influence of those references on the lives of the film’s characters. It’s the most meta moment in a film filled with them, but also one so erotically charged it can only be described as breathtaking. For that moment, if only that moment, Gere gets to live the life he’d only seen in movies. All or nothing pays off.

The story doesn’t end happily, of course. I won’t spoil the particulars, but I will note the credits, which unroll against X’s cover of the Jerry Lee Lewis song “Breathless.” Best I can tell, it’s just a coincidence that Lewis recorded a song with that title around the same time Godard was conceiving his film, making X’s version an act of homage to roughly the same time period. But it’s a happy coincidence. X’s version captures the film that precedes it in miniature, updating the inspiration, speeding it up, giving it an underside of ’80s L.A. attitude, but keeping the essence and working in thrills all its own. In France, McBride’s Breathless played as À Bout De Soufflé Made In U.S.A., which fits. It’s the product of another time and another country, but true in its own way to the rebellious spirit of its source.

Next: Murders In The Zoo (1933)
Then: God Of Gamblers (1989)

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