Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Overlooked Classics: Breathless

We live in a remake crazed world right now where apparently no classic film is safe. I am fully expecting ROSEMARY BABY and EXORCIST remakes to be announced any time now. However it's easy to forget that the cinema world has always been a little remake and recycling crazy. Often the results are horrendous and insulting to the original, TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, while some play like well meaning tributes, DAWN OF THE DEAD and occasionally some are absolutely inspired, SOLARIS. In the wake of the release of the remake of one of the most legendary horror films, HALLOWEEN, I thought I would pay tribute to an even more audacious remake from almost 25 years ago.
I'm sure critics and film buffs in 1982 were positively flabbergasted when Jim Mcbride announced that he was going to remake Jean-Luc Godard's incredibly influential BREATHLESS. Working with L.M. Kit Carson and Michael Mann, Mcbride began work on his BOUT DE SOUFELL script based on Truffaut and Godard's original probably with the full knowledge of how outraged many of the film community were going to be. For French film fans it was the equivalent of re-making CITIZEN KANE.
Mcbride and Carson made their first collaboration with 1967's fascinating mock documentary, DAVID HOLZMAN'S DIARY. Mcbride would follow that film with the slightly more straightforward MY GIRLFRIEND'S WEDDING in 69. His first narrative feature was the little scene, and rather controversial, GLEN AND RANDA in 1971 which was followed in 1974 by the farcical sexploitation title HOT TIMES.
I don't know a lot about McBride so I can't say how he spent his time between 1974 and 1982. But his early self reflexive documentary work shows him as obviously influenced by Godard and the French New Wave, so there could have been more shocking choices for people to direct a BREATHLESS remake.

The American BREATHLESS stars Richard Gere as the comic book loving, rockabilly obsessed dreamer and small time thief Jesse Lujak. Gere's Lujak is like a dangerous speedball shot of all ego and sex in BREATHLESS. His portrayal is one of the most charismatically narcissistic in American cinema, as the film is filled with shots of him staring into mirrors, dancing by himself, strutting and at times it looks like Gere could literally explode. I love the performance and the remake of BREATHLESS absolutely hinges on it. It's a performance that is probably more difficult to love than hate but there are few that I think to compare it to. Love it or hate it, Richard Gere's Jesse Lujack is undeniably unique.
Gere is of course playing the incredibly iconic Jean Paul Belmondo's role, only McBride had the clever idea of switching him from French to American and then taking the female lead and changing her from American to French. While Godard's stylish film was a French tribute to the low budget American gangster films of the 30's and 40's, Mcbride's remake is a colorful American tribute to the French New Wave.
Filling in for the untouchable Jean Seberg is young French actress Valerie Kaprisky. The lovely Kaprisky took a lot of flack for this role but it's worth mentioning that this was one of her first films and that she barely spoke English. I think she redeems herself quite nicely in the part as the young, naive French student. No less than the great Polish director Andrzej Zulawski was impressed enough to cast her a year later in his sublimely over the top THE PUBLIC WOMAN.

Mcbride's BREATHLESS plays like a compulsive and flashy pop art piece, one that you stare at for awhile trying to figure out whether or not it is actually art or just something hanging on the wall. With it's whirlwind pace, Jack Nitzsche score and stunning splashes of sun stroked Los Angeles color, BREATHLESS is undeniably fun and exciting.
Mcbride's is in powerful command of the medium in this film and his camera rarely sits still, at times it seems like it has had some of the same speed Lujack has been popping but it never feels out of control, or under-prepared. Richard Kline helps give the film it's distinct look and the script is loaded with enough snappy dialogue to make it still feel fresh.

Mcbride's film plays pretty close to Godard's plot wise and ends with the same tragi-comic ending that the original had. Mcbride also crams his film full of references to past films, books and music signalling the remake of BREATHLESS as a clear precursor to 90's cinema and specifically Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino has actually called Mcbride's film a favorite and it is, perhaps much more than most of the films typically mentioned as influencing him, a clear kickoff to Tarantino's reference filled world.
The remake of BREATHLESS polarized most critics upon it's release and was only a minor success at the box office. It signalled the end of part one of Gere's always brave and occasionally inspiring career. He has never been quite this psychotically good again in a role, which isn't discrediting his later work (much of it very fine), but he was became a different actor after Jesse Lujack. Perhaps because Lujack was the obvious end to the particular road he had carved for himself, as an actor, starting with his crazed turn in LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR. Where else could Gere go after playing a character literally singing and dancing in the street to celebrate his final moments before getting gunned down?

1983's BREATHLESS makes a lot more sense now than it did 24 years ago. Not at all dated, it now plays as one of the most progressive and seminal films of the 1980s. Unfortunately Mcbride's career since has been frustrating with only the neo-noir , THE BIG EASY, giving hint to his obvious great talents.

One of my favorite postscripts to the remake of BREATHLESS is Luc Besson's 1985 film SUBWAY. Early on we have Besson matching nearly shot for shot a scene, featuring Christopher Lambert stealing a car, from BREATHLESS. This shouldn't have been a surprise as Besson was one of the clear leaders of France's '2nd New Wave' but the shocking thing was that the shot wasn't copied from Godard and Belmondo, but McBride and Gere. It was Besson's sly wink to a sadly underrated and mostly forgotten American film.

The remake of BREATHLESS is currently available on a disappointing full screen dvd from MGM with no extras. The best way to see the film is courtesy of the out of print laserdisc from the mid 90's that had a sharp widescreen presentation and a beautiful sleeve picturing Gere's manic, lost and completely unforgettable loser.

Here are two interesting links. One is to Roger Eberts original negative but at times insightful review and the other is Vincent Canby's original take on it. I think these reviews are interesting in that they show some of the attitudes at the very idea or remaking Godard's film and also for the fact that they almost like it.

also a link highlighting Tarantino on his favorite films, which include Mcbride's BREATHLESS.

1 comment:

Rain said...

I saw a sneak preview screening of "Breathless" in 1983. At the age of 13 I didn't think there was anything hotter than Richard Gere, so I was very excited about the movie, and came away from it a fan. My fondness for the film decreased a little as I grew older, but I still like it a lot.

I went with my father, who is a huge Goddard fan, and I think he was expecting to hate it, but he liked it, too, and it was because of this movie that we later saw McBride's "The Big Easy," which we also loved. (I love the way McBride uses songs in his films. He has a tendency to let a song continue playing, even when a scene is over and has moved on to another scene, instead of just using bits of songs for bits of scenes...)

Anyway, interesting thing about the sneak preview screening. It had a different ending than the eventual theatrical release. If I remember correctly (and spoiler alerts here....) the movie ends in a freeze frame after Gere grabs his gun and turns around to face the police. But the ending I saw had him shot, much like the ending of the original. Can't remember if he calls Kaprisky a "bitch" as his dying words, though! I think I may have seen this ending on a TV airing as well...