Jim McBride’s Breathless, in its use of purposefully anachronistic process shots and Wild West nostalgia, could easily be mistaken for auto-critique, wearing influences and jollies so visibly on its red, ruffled sleeves that it buckles under the weight of its own excesses. That seems to be McBride’s wager by scripting, along with L.M. Kit Carson, a protagonist whose racism, homophobia, and sexism is so encoded within his taste in music, fashion, and reactive actions as to be explicit, even wholly deliberate. Allegedly a remake of Jean-Luc Godard’s debut feature, the film reverses the scenario of the French New Wave classic by placing a Parisian in America, rather than an American in Paris.
The genders flip too, with beer-sluggin’, comic-book-obsessed Jesse Lujack (Richard Gere) shuckin’ and jivin’ to his tapes of Jerry Lee Lewis while he makes his way from Las Vegas to Los Angeles to pick up Monica (Valérie Kaprisky), a grad student with whom he spent a few nights in Vegas months prior. A flash of violence sets the film’s “on the lam” narrative into motion, but McBride progressively (or regressively, as it were) shirks any meaningful, barbed developments in favor of enmeshing the film within softcore pleasures, while maintaining through glib and superficial gestures that its foregrounded delights are meant to be ambiguous.
Much like Body Heat, which valorized noirish archetypes instead of examining their original social contexts, Breathless simply has a hard-on for Hollywood lore, as convertibles, rockabilly, and monochromatic lighting are utilized to enshrine dominant legacies rather than invert or, at least, probe them. That’s the fallacy in constant play here, where an actress like Kaprisky has clearly been cast for her breasts, which McBride proudly studies in extended sex scenes, as if offering her supple flesh as the film’s revisionist tactic. One would not be remiss to proffer such a supposition; McBride seems to be genuinely convinced that he’s enlightening classical Hollywood mores by reveling in the relinquishing of production-code restrictions, treating nudity as if it were inherently daring. Perhaps that’s his superficial interest in Godard as well, since he lingers on Kaprisky’s buttocks in a bedroom scene that’s quite clearly drawn from a similar moment featuring Brigitte Bardot in Contempt.
But the French auteur didn’t liberate stuffy American sensibilities in his films through homage; his referentiality should be read as akin to a critical biography, characterizing American hubris and formal craftsmanship while dutifully dismantling its interest in continuity and concealment. With early Godard, the political resides in aesthetic, genre-based interests. McBride, on the other hand, merely licenses ethnic privilege and racism in multiple ways, including Jesse’s constant imitations and caricatures of Hispanic voices and adamancy that Lewis is the “original crazy man.” It should be noted (though the film doesn’t bother) that Lewis’s biography also includes accidentally shooting his bass player in the chest and telling Chuck Berry in 1956, after finishing a set in which he set fire to his piano, to “top that, nigger!” McBride made a Lewis biopic in 1989 called Great Balls of Fire, starring Dennis Quaid, but the film changes the line to “follow that, killer!” Whether Lewis’s actual usage of the racial epithet is apocryphal or not, McBride appears intent upon a white washing of ethnic conflict.
These are intensive, historical facts of violence and racism that Breathless cannot be bothered to interrogate, because it’s Lewis’s perceived bravado, über-masculinity, and brashness that Jesse is interested in and McBride allows it without any real challenge or discomfiting. Even though Jesse is explicitly deemed a “fuck-up” by various other characters, McBride preserves his protagonist’s desires through the act of sensuously, but banally, visualizing them. Whatever irony McBride intends is immediately dissolved by the film’s “all or nothing” ethos. These issues are made even more perceptible in hindsight, with subsequent corpse-fucking films like Back to the Future and True Romance seeking to further assert white appropriation of, and infatuation with, black cool as hip, stylish exercises in fashionable nostalgia.
Quentin Tarantino in particular, who has been a vocal fan of McBride’s film, seems to have used it as the explicit basis for scripting True Romance, in which his protagonist (a culturally myopic virgin obsessed with Elvis, kung-fu movies, and comic books) is treated to a feature-length fantasy gig where he blasts the pimp and gets the girl. Although Tarantino is clear that his original intent was to have his lead die instead of survive, which he believes would have somehow negated all that had preceded it, the gesture remains one of mindless necrophilia, in which mythic reformation boils down to fetishized lighting setups and trivia-based cultural engagement. Breathless deserves further damnation for helping to usher in such a despicable, misguided era.
Shout! Factory has rescued Breathless from its previous, 2000 pan-and-scan DVD, though the transfer seems to have been made from a good print with little attention to giving it an outstanding Blu-ray presentation. Scratches, dirt, and blips are perceptible throughout, which distracts from the otherwise commendable effort, including rich, saturated colors, particularly in on-location, outdoor sequences. The new DTS sound mix is more impressive, mixed in favor of accentuating the film’s soundtrack choices, with dialogue remaining clearly audible, if secondary.
Only the film’s theatrical trailer.
It’s good that audiences are now able to see Jim McBride’s Breathless as originally intended, thanks to Shout! Factory’s new Blu-ray, if only to recognize the film’s thoroughly contemptible and winded cultural sensibilities.