No. 38: Breathless

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Note: Back to the Movies is a special feature on the FilmNerds blog in which Matt Scalici will be watching the Top 50 highest-grossing movies of 1983 in order from 50 to 1.

While reading through some of the 1983 reviews for Jim McBride’s Breathless, I was reassured to find that most critics at the time were just as baffled by what they saw as I am watching it today in 2010. Just stating the premise of the film is flabbergasting enough: it’s an American remake of Jean-Luc Godard’s French New Wave classic of the same name (well, technically Godard’s film is called A bout de souffle but it’s well known to American film buffs as Breathless). The classic French film is credited as one of the first pieces of true New Wave cinema and was notable because…well, it wasn’t really about anything.

That’s certainly oversimplifying things but in general, what made Breathless so revolutionary at the time was that unlike the vast majority of Hollywood studio films up to that point, it refused to adhere to typical conventions like using dialog to advance the plot and having clear protagonists and villains. It was also unconventional from a technical standpoint, with virtually no artificial lighting, handheld camerawork and improvised dialog. These were all things that changed the way people thought about film and its affects can be seen even in mainstream Hollywood studio films today.

But that’s the 1960 film. We’re here to talk about the 1983 film. A little research around the old internet will tell you that director Jim McBride considered Godard’s original film to be hugely inspirational to him as a young filmmaker and as a tribute to that classic, McBride wanted to create something that could recapture the experience he had watching the original film.

The inherent problem with trying to recapture the feeling you had when you saw something that reinvented filmmaking is that in order to truly recapture that feeling, you yourself would have to reinvent filmmaking. Half-Hearted Spoiler Alert: this film didn’t do that. Nor was McBride really trying to do that.

What he was really trying to do was to translate the characters and their relationship not only from French to English (and Paris to L.A.) but also from 1960 to 1983. I’d be wrong if I said they didn’t get anything right in this translation but there are a few really notable things that simply got lost in the translation.

In the original film, the male lead Michel is a street tough who models his personality after the coolest guy he can think of, Humphrey Bogart. His American equivalent Jesse (Richard Gere) is also a young ruffian only this time his role model is Jerry Lee Lewis. Here’s the problem with that swap: Jerry Lee Lewis is not a good stand-in for Humphrey Bogart. Anyone looks cool acting like Bogey. Most people look like idiots when they act like Jerry Lee Lewis. Maybe not all people, but Richard Gere sure as heck does.

His bizarre outbursts of dancing and rockabilly wailing are so off-putting, uncool and out of place that it makes it impossible for me as a viewer to root for this guy or even to enjoy watching him do anything. He’s unlikable in a way that makes him hard to watch.

Unfortunately, his female cohort, while easy on the eyes, is not much easier to watch in terms of her performance. French actress Valerie Kaprisky was plucked from obscurity to play Monica, Jesse’s love interest in the film (Michel’s love interest in the original film was an American girl, get it?). While her character is meant to be a brilliant young architect with a bright future ahead of her, Kaprisky looks like a newborn baby deer. Nearly every review at the time points out the constant clueless look on Kaprisky’s face and it’s no less painful 27 years later watching her fumble her way through the melodramatic dialog.

This isn’t a bad movie. There are some moments that really work, particularly the moments more focused on mood than story or dialog. McBride pulls off some masterfully great looking shots and managed to find all the most photogenic spots in Los Angeles and the surrounding hills. While the two main characters are both hard to take in large doses they each have their moments, particularly Gere who plays up Jesse’s immature, jealous rage with great effectiveness.

The New York Times review at the time suggested that it would be easier to view the film in a positive light had it not taken upon itself the comparison to Godard’s revolutionary masterpiece. I’m coming to this movie without any particular affinity for the original film. While I appreciate the influence that the French New Wave movement had on many of the films I love from the ’70s and onward, the original films themselves just don’t do it for me.

That said, I appreciate what Godard was trying to in his version of Breathless and it should be respected. While Godard’s film was effortless and revolutionary, this remake feels forced and unoriginal. It’s quirkiness and penchant for referencing other films may have been partially influential to guys like Quentin Tarantino (who calls it one of his favorite movies) but aside from that there certainly haven’t been many films made like it, and probably for good reason.

Next Up: The first of a trio of  films from 1983 based on the work of Stephen King, The Dead Zone.