Take Two #11: Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960) & Jim McBride’s Breathless (1983)

In a word: balls.

Photo: Janus Films

In a word: balls. A quarter-century after its release, pretty much any controversy surrounding Jean-Luc Godard’s debut feature had long passed, and it was a firmly entrenched, immovable classic of the cinema. Which is to say, it was due for the kind of irreverent treatment that Godard himself mastered in the ’60s. I reclined, popcorn in lap, as the 1983 Breathless began, and hoped that director Jim McBride—whose biggest credits include the 1989 biopic Great Balls of Fire! and some relatively recent work directing Six Feet Under—might pick up the original and shake it by the lapels, as Godard’s film had done for gangster and romance movies a generation earlier. For a while, the new Breathless coasts on attitude alone. Then it just coasts.

Rather than the irrepressible Jean-Paul Belmondo, we now get the thinking man’s Keanu Reeves, Richard Gere. In his early work with demanding directors like Richard Brooks, Paul Schrader, and Terrence Malick, it seemed that Gere’s status as a Brando-level talent was all but foreordained; the meaty, emotionally wrought parts just couldn’t come fast enough. As an acting opportunity, playing the lead in a remake of Breathless couldn’t be juicier, and you can almost see the gears cranking as Gere hustles, steals, grifts, flirts, and grins, playing the world’s biggest deluded asshole. This is acting—showy and sweaty and entirely superficial.

The jump cut, Godard’s most notable technical innovation in his debut, is often seen as a revolutionary editing trick, but it’s less heralded for being a landmark development in screen acting, though it ultimately changed our expectations for what constitutes a great movie performance. Belmondo was a fabulously understated actor when he wanted to be (as in Vittorio de Sica’s Two Women), but in Breathless he’s always on, a big mess of contradictions and schemes. And the jump cuts express this as much as his performance, throwing this tumble of postures and body tics together to show how closely related they really are. There’s an early scene where he comes to visit an old girlfriend purely so he can steal her money and buy breakfast. They talk about her job (he has none, needless to say) as she gets ready for work, and after pilfering the francs in her purse, he plays with a decorative child’s toy and ogles himself in her vanity mirror. This is all shown in a series of quick edits accompanying their slow, meaningless dialogue, which captures perfectly how this man is able to maintain multiple contradictions of character at once; he’s a vane grifter, a self-obsessed socializer, a man-child. And the editing technique requires that Belmondo convey this through small gestures rather than continuous expression.

But you don’t need me to tell you why the original Breathless is good; that job’s been done by every movie in its wake. And thus there are two major reasons why a remake of Breathless makes no sense. For one, its own influences are displayed so brazenly that the film’s entire essence stems from Godard’s precise combination and recreation of his sources. It’s an extended homage to a handful of his American obsessions—film noir, Faulkner, cool jazz, gangster movies, Jean Seberg—and its plot is simultaneously derivative and mundane. For another, its technical influence can be seen in commercial and independent filmmaking alike, to say nothing of advertising, graphic design, and music videos; you can see “remakes” of it every time you turn on the TV, read a novel by Elmore Leonard or Thomas Pynchon, or watch a movie as seemingly disparate as The Bourne Identity.

But no matter; people still cover Beatles songs, so why not give Breathless a new coat of paint in the ’80s? And for a little while, it seems like McBride has the right idea, namely his own multimedia mash-up that wears its clichédness like a badge of honor. He displays a sense of entitlement with his source material that would likely make Godard proud, changing the location to the American southwest and giving his protagonist a Silver Surfer obsession. This is all fun for a while, particularly Gere’s ridiculous and rambunctious performance. But then the lovers begin their doomed romance, the cops pursue, et cetera, et cetera, and McBride lets his initial liberties wither and die from underuse. Besides updating the basic storyline to better match the time period, he does nothing with it. No interesting observations about the different nature of crime between 1960s France and 1980s America; no thoughtful consideration of the relative merits of jazz and rockabilly. An hour or so in, McBride’s liberties start to feel self-satisfied rather than impish, and self-importance is the death of a movie like this.

The performances don’t help. Seberg was the not-so-secret weapon of the original film, balancing Belmondo’s aggressive attitude and centering the director’s go-everywhere photographic approach. As Gere’s French love interest, Valérie Kaprisky brings a sub-Schwarzenegger level of English diction and expression to her role, and though McBride clearly loves the sight of her naked breasts, she’s as uncharismatic an actress as I’ve ever seen. (Her other credits include the softcore Aphrodite and a load of French TV.) The plot lopes along familiarly, even more so than in the original film, and we’re treated to certain niceties of ’80s cinema that simply weren’t allowed in the ’60s—much profanity, plentiful boobs, a Bruce Vilanch cameo.

What exactly was the point of this film? Quentin Tarantino, its lone defender as far as I could find, is often accused of repurposing the French New Wave’s style and effects to little thematic end, but the 1983 Breathless truly plays like the kind of film that his critics accuse him of making all the time. It’s flashy, poorly edited, and too dependent on its own influences to resonate emotionally. But its failure is an oddly effective salute to the original film. Even now, it’s hard to imagine somebody remaking Breathless with a fuck-all attitude to match the original. The 1983 film shows that it’d be foolish to even try.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

John Lingan

John Lingan has written for The New York Times Magazine, The Oxford American, Smithsonian, The Washington Post, and many other places. Often about music, but not always.

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