Breathless (Jim McBride,1983) It’s hard to think of a movie more destined to fail on release than Jim McBride’s Breathless. After all, the very act of remaking Jean-Luc Godard’s groundbreaking masterpiece felt like an affront on film critics and it’s not as if the title registered enough with general audiences to have much chance of commercial success. So the movie disappeared in 1983 in a manner that was inevitable. Thankfully, time has been kind to this weird little pop experiment. It now plays as an underdog lost classic rather than an attempt at manufacturing an event, feels less outrageous after the decades of self-referential movies that followed, and has a home amongst a series of French New Wave inspired 80s lovers-on-the-run movies like Something Wild, Into The Night, and After Hours. This Breathless is hardly perfect, but it is an incredibly entertaining little romp and celebration of cinema that’s well worth a look for anyone who appreciates such things. I suppose that’s why Shout Factory has put it out on Blu-ray, they are company dedicated to enshrining cult films these days after all.
The plot of course comes straight out of the original with a few twists. Richard Gere plays a goofball wild child obsessed with old movies, Silver Surfer comics, rockabilly music and havin’ a good ol’ time. He opens the film by stealing a car and accidentally killing a cop, then rather than be fazed by that potentially life-quashing mistake, Gere just keeps on L-I-V-I-N. There’s also a girl of course, a French grad student played by Valerie Kaprisky who Gere is hopelessly in love with. He wants them to run off together in a fit of romantic fantasy and so they spend this colorful flurry of a movie running around, dodging authorities, sharing pop culture references, engaging in existential debates, and boning (obviously). It hits all of the big notes in Godard’s debut, while also spiraling off into it’s own strange digressions, which is as much a proper homage to the original Breathless as any of the direct reimaginings.
Inevitably, the great strength of Breathless 83 is its style. McBride crafts a willfully artificial film filled with bold colors, flowing camerawork, whiplash dramatic gearshifts, and some of the most amusingly phony rear projection ever staged. The movie is a flurry of sensation with a killer soundtrack and one-striking image after another. McBride’s hodgpodge of visual ideas ranges from inspired (like a wonderful sequence in which the lovers roll in the sack behind a movie screen) to overkill (like the tediously on-the-nose Silver Surfer symbolism), but that hardly matters. Everything explodes onto the screen with such intensity and commitment that there’s no choice but to stand back in awe even if it’s just a result of being pummeled into submission. Gere is such a charismatic manic ball of energy that you can’t help but lament his deterioration into increasingly lazy performances over the years. Valeri Kaprisky on the other hand is rather raw, often as a result of her struggles with English (which could be read as an homage to Jean Seberg’s bad French in the original). Yet, somehow they work magically together. Gere’s occasional explosions over the top and Kaprisky’s occasional flat readings just add more bumps to this wacky rollercoaster.
The one thing that Jim McBride certainly captures in his Breathless remake is the renegade sense of unpredictability and experimentation of the original. Even though the plot follows the same basic beats of an iconic flick, you simply can’t predict how any scene will play out. The playful tone is all over the place in the best possible sense, the 50s-flavored soundtrack keeps things rollicking along, and the pacing flies like a driving force. McBride may not have been a filmmaker who seemed to earn taking on a classic through his own brilliant career, but he was unexpectedly the right man for the job. The guy had a strange career, bursting onto the scene in the 60s with then-groundbreaking autobiographical documentaries and making a mark with a brilliant parody of that form in David Holzman’s Diary. His most high profile film after that was the decidedly decent Great Balls Of Fire and eventually he ended up in television working for hire on everything from The Wonder Years to Six Feet Under. Looking at McBride’s career, you get the impression that he’s an underground filmmaker who learned how to turn that craft into a job with one exception. Somehow he talked Orion into letting him remake Breathless and along with his underground buddy L.M. Kit Carson (who co-wrote the movie around the same time he did Paris, Texas and Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2) delivered a wacko little movie actually worthy of the title.
McBride’s pop art visuals and thrift shop production design suits Blu-ray remarkably well. It pops off the screen like few other titles in the Shout Factory catalogue while still retaining a pleasing façade of 80s film grain. The movie looks and sounds better than it has since 1983 and given that McBride’s aims were always style over substance, that’s vital in appreciating just what a treat this little movie is. Unfortunately, there are no special features on the disc whatsoever, which is a real shame since it would have been wonderful to hear what Jim McBride or anyone else involved with the production had to say about Breathless all these years later. It really has aged remarkably well, with all of its stylistic tics and post-modern tricks feeling far more comfortably digestible today than they must have 30 years ago. It’s far from a perfect movie, but it is an incredibly fun and surprisingly strong one. If it wasn’t called Breathless, this thing will undoubtedly be a cult movie by now and certainly deserves that status. It would make a great double bill with Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild. You could call the pairing ‘French New Wave Homage From The New Wave Era” or something equally pretentious to feel very smart for watching the two titles together. But ultimately that double bill would deliver a more goddamn fun night at the movies than anyone has a right to expect.