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Jean Paul Belmondo (#110 of 3)

Take Two #11: Breathless (1960) & Breathless (1983)

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Take Two #11: <em>Breathless</em> (1960) & <em>Breathless</em> (1983)
Take Two #11: <em>Breathless</em> (1960) & <em>Breathless</em> (1983)

[Editor’s Note: Take Two is an occasional series about remakes, reboots, relaunches, ripoffs, and do-overs in every cinematic genre.]

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.

A Movie a Day, Day Four: Breathless

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A Movie a Day, Day Four: <em>Breathless</em>
A Movie a Day, Day Four: <em>Breathless</em>

While Cannes was all a-Twitter with talk of Jean-Luc Godard’s latest feature yesterday, I was at a press screening of his first, Breathless, soon to be re-released in a restored print for its 50th anniversary. Which was just fine by me since I always love watching Breathless and haven’t liked much of what Godard has produced in recent decades.

The film was shockingly new when it was released in 1960: It was the first feature to be shot entirely with a handheld camera and the first to make liberal use of jump cuts, which were then considered sloppy and unprofessional. But Godard needed to edit down his first cut considerably, and rather than lose whole scenes, he chose to highlight just the most dynamic parts of each scene and cut out the rest, creating the sense that characters and objects are jumping from one position to another between shots. Both of those techniques are tiresomely overused now, but the beauty of Breathless is how vital it still feels in spite of that—still crazy after all these years.

Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou on Criterion

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Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou on Criterion
Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou on Criterion

“A film is like a battleground. It has love… hate… action… violence… death… in one word, emotions.”

True, that is what Samuel Fuller famously declares early on in Pierrot le Fou as his definition of cinema. But while Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 feature certainly has those first five components contained within its wildly free-form structure, emotions aren’t exactly in abundance here. Or, to put it more accurately, there are emotions, but those emotions are deconstructed and examined to the point that standard reactions to such moments no longer apply. How you are supposed to feel about the plot and the characters in the film remains frustratingly elusive—and perhaps, in the end, irrelevant. Pierrot le Fou is quite possibly the “movie-about-movies” par excellence, because by the end of it those moments of love, hate, action, violence and death don’t matter so much as one’s own unsettled awareness of just how familiar and concrete movie emotions—especially those within the kinds of genre films often adored by Godard and his Cahiers du cinéma peers—often seem compared to the messier and more complex emotions one encounters in real life.