It took serious cojones when Jim McBride decided to remake one of the most “sacred” films of the French New Wave: Jean-Luc Godard’s À Bout de Souffle. The original was an utter classic, with Belmondo channelling Bogart and Jean Seberg becoming the dream girl of many a young man. However, if anybody was going to remake the film in the US and do something productive with it, it would be McBride, who remains of the most idiosyncratic directors to come out of the New Hollywood boom of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. He had a reverence for the original film, but also had an original take on the material that would also inspire a young man named Quentin Tarantino.
The first change was the nationalities of the characters: the Belmondo character of Jessie is changed from French to American and played by Richard Gere, in perhaps a career-best performance, and Valérie Kaprisky plays Seberg’s Monica. However, unlike À Bout de Souffle, which gave Seberg’s character lots of screen focus, Breathless is only interested in Gere’s deeply narcissistic (but still incredibly likeable) Jessie: there are plenty shots of Gere’s naked body, and this the period when he was considered a “sex symbol.” His other most interesting film of the early ’80s was American Gigolo, where also played a totally self-obsessed character, but in that case one who was a male escort. The fact that Jean Seberg so perfectly played her role, and developed an on-screen rapport between her character and Belmondo’s that made her easily just as interesting as Jesse, is perhaps the remake’s biggest failing.
The Tarantino connection comes from the fact McBride, like Tarantino, is somebody who has one foot in the arthouse world but also has a deep-rooted love for “pop culture.” Godard had similar feelings at the time he made his best films, such as À Bout de Souffle, Bande à Part, and Alphaville. The fact thathe was fundamentally a genre director on almost every single film he made—until he became an unbearable Maoist—was a comment on American film genres he loved. Many Godard scholars and fans love to dismiss this facet of his style, but it’s just an undeniable fact.
Breathless was one of the first American films to take a post-modern approach to genre, with the wonderfully artificial rear projection when Jessie is driving back from Vegas after he steals a Porsche. Rear projection was by then rarely used, and it’s even rarer now – only used for the most part to show artificiality. It’s interesting that rehearsals between Kaprisky and Gere were at the Zoetrope offices amongst the sets for One From The Heart, which was another film made at that time that also was obsessed with the wonderful artificiality of cinema. There is even a sequence where Jessie and Monica make love while Gun Crazy plays in the background in the movie theatre where they are hiding out. It’s as if they know they are living their own cinematic wonderland.
Jessie has an obsession with the Silver Surfer, making it one of the first films that comments on nerd culture. McBride’s earlier film, Glen and Randa, was set in a post-apocalyptic landscape, where the title characters set out to find the cities depicted in the comic books that had survived. Now it would be rare to find a film without characters that reference pop culture, but in 1983 McBride was one of the first (The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension is another early example of this trend.) However, even by the time Tarantino made Reservoir Dogs, it was becoming commonplace. The director Joe Dante was one of the first to litter his films full of pop culture references from the films he grew up on.
McBride is also a director who understands the craziness of rock n’ roll better than most other filmmakers, and this is on full view in Breathless. Jessie’s other obsession is Jerry Lee Lewis, who was most certainly one the wildest and most controversial of the initial rock n’ roll stars. McBride went on to direct Great Balls of Fire, a biopic of Jerry Lee Lewis that would never be greenlit now in the post-#timesup world, with its shockingly matter-of-fact depiction of his relationship and marriage to his 13-year-old cousin. McBride has used Jerry Lee’s music since his earliest films, but given the title of Breathless it helped that he already had a theme song to soundtrack the film. He managed to get the L.A. punk band X to re-record it for the film’s final moments, which tapped into the burgeoning L.A. punk scene going back to roots music and rock n’ roll by merging the two, with bands like X, The Flesh Eaters, The Gun Club, The Knitters, Los Lobos, The Plugz and The Cramps, who at the time had recently relocated to L.A.
Breathless remains one of the most radical remakes ever to make it to the screen—under McBride’s direction it becomes very much its own creation, while still jumping off from the original. Its setting is a beautiful artificial version of Los Angeles, and uses the famous murals around the city to great visual effect.
It’s long since become a bona fide cult film, partly because of Tarantino’s early role as a champion of the film and other prominent fans, including Mark Kermode and Larry Karaszewski. Richard Gere’s amazing golfer-style trousers also have their own claim to fame, and the most hilarious sex scene, with Gere singing Elvis’s “Suspicious Minds” after a moment of complete self-obsessed narcissism. Although McBride would return to neo-noir with his next film, The Big Easy, it wasn’t half the film that Breathless was (although at the time it was more favourably reviewed.)
The Blu-Ray features a nice interview with Kermode in some kind of church—perhaps a nod to his favourite film, The Exorcist—and includes an interview with Valérie Kaprisky, for whom Breathless was her one and only Hollywood film.