Jim McBride’s reworking of the Godard classic was widely dismissed at the time, but can now be seen as an ahead-of-its-time study of pop culture and criminal cool.
When Jim McBride’s Breathless was released in cinemas in 1983, respectable film reviewers were incandescent with rage that someone would dare attempt to remake the 1960 Jean Luc-Godard arthouse favourite A Bout De Souffle, and with beefcake-du-jour Richard Gere taking the Jean-Paul Belmondo role no less (by a director whose previous film had been a sex comedy called Hot Times). It received an absolute critical drubbing, with Gere savaged for his A-lister-out-of-control, primping, preening, narcissistic performance. The film was written off as a disastrous experiment that should never have been made.
Time has been very kind to Breathless indeed – so now it can sit alongside the likes of Blood Simple, Cutter’s Way and Body Heat as a prime example of superlative 1980s American crime cinema – rather than be best remembered for the film where Gere audition two hundred women for the lead female role and showed off his winkle to cinema audiences. Its rehabilitation only took a decade, helped, no doubt when, in the early nineties, Quentin Tarantino cited it as an influence.
When, in Breathless, Gere, as car thief Jesse Lujack, is driving a stolen Porsche, the Nevada desert behind him quite obviously a back projection, audiences howled in derision. In 1994 Tarantino would be praised through the roof for using the same technique in Pulp Fiction. Suddenly it wasn’t corny, it was art. Plus ca change. All of a sudden Breathless looked as playful, nimble and experimental as the original French film, appearing to be the work of an innovative, cine-literate director at the vanguard of a new cinematic crime wave.
Tarantino cannily noted that Lujack was ‘just the right side of unlikeable’ – rare then, and even more so now, to have a main character that tests the viewer’s patience and has questionable morals. Rootless, reckless Lujack accidentally kills a cop, flees to LA, and spends a couple of days avoiding the police, trying to rustle up some cash and all the while attempting to get a sexy French girl (Valerie Kaprisky) to go to Mexico with him. He doesn’t really have a redeeming bone in his body, but there is something irresistible about him – even when he’s acting like a petulant child, breaking into apartments, robbing purses, smashing things, running red lights, stealing car after car. It’s only when the credits roll that you realise you’ve been spending 100 minutes rooting for a cop killer, for Christ’s sake.
It’s Gere’s best performance by a mile (American Gigolo was just a warm-up for this), and if this was an actor at the height of fame doing exactly what he wanted onscreen, it was exactly what the role required. Dressed in plaid trousers and open-necked two-tone shirt, slinking and strutting hunched over around Los Angeles like a panther, invoking Jerry Lee Lewis and the Silver Surfer, it’s a sensational incarnation of a man whose mantra is ‘all or nothing baby’. He also gets to fondle and suck French ingenue Kaprisky’s magnificent breasts on more than one occasion, scenes which manage to be both gratuitous and essential to proceedings (in one sequence the Joseph Lewis film Gun Crazy plays in the background, burnishing Breathless with its impeccable pop pulp credentials).
If Gere is the star of the show, what a show it is. This is a film drenched in textures and detail, from offbeat Los Angeles architecture (a house shaped like a meringue, Errol Flynn’s dilapidated mansion, a delirious crane shot through the iconic Randy’s Donuts sign), to bizarre early Eighties West Coast fashion (one character who admonishes Lujack that ‘style counts’ says so while sporting a Panama hat, cut off black t-shirt, and yellow trousers hiked to the belly button with white braces). The supporting cast includes Art Metrano (Mauser from the Police Academy films) as a sleazy junkyard owner, and the magnificent John P Ryan as the cop hot on Lujakc’s heels, who gets the best line in the film: “Don’t f-u-c-k with the LAPD!”. The script, by LA Kit Carson, is as manic and jittery as his subsequent screenplay for Paris, Texas would be sparse and enigmatic.
The score is stupendous – Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, Dexy’s, Link Wray (also used by Tarantino in Pulp Fiction), Sam Cooke, LA punk band X, mixed with Jack Nitzsche and a mesmerising track by Phillip Glass. Glass went on to score a documentary about a real-life cop killing, Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line, in 1988, while director McBride revisited Lee Lewis the Great Balls of Fire! biopic in 1989. Blasted with dazzling comic book pinks and reds, McBride, with the help of production designer Richard Sylbert (Chinatown, Fat City) and cinematographer Richard H Kline (Soylent Green), turns Los Angeles into a timeless riot of colour and chaos that Lujack treats like a playground, that looks absolutely dazzling in this Blu-ray debut.
Breathless’s stirring finale, without giving anything away, is a master class in editing, with a freeze-frame ending that might just be a nod to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The film is over in a flash and you wish it could run and run. But, as the ageing genius architect in the film astutely remarks, “Don’t be a fool, nothing’s forever.”
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