Lawrence Russell

Breathless, 1983 (remake of the Godard original, A Bout de Souffle, 1960) dir. Jim McBride writ. Carson and McBride cine. Richard H. Kline star. Richard Gere (Jesse), Valerie Kaprisky (Monica)

This American remake of the Godard classic stalks the original scene by scene, sequence by sequence but without the editing pulse of the original. Essentially the narrative paradigm is reversed: Paris becomes L.A., the French criminal anti-hero becomes American and his American lover becomes French.

One might be dubious about this remake exercise of Godard's film "essay" about the effect of American cultural imperialism on the French/Euro sensibility. Can Gere become Belmondo, Kaprisky become Seberg?

Why not? Gere's role is essentially a reprise of his sensitive male prostitute portrayal in American Gigolo, although you'd have to say the difference in moral culpability is considerable. Like Belmondo's Michel, Gere's Jesse is no mere victim. He's an out-and-out crook, another manipulative child-man who gets his wisdom from the comics: Jesse's fantasy of himself comes from The Silver Surfer, an action hero who surfs the galaxies in a crude metaphor for the universe of inner space.

"Love is the Power Supreme," says the SS. But this reiteration of an ageless maxim seems but an easy rationalization for Jesse's animal persona. His conscience is suspect, even though he's a kinder, gentler version of Michel. This time the cop is killed "accidentally" and when he tells Monica he loves her, maybe you believe him.

If you don't think about it much, enjoy the chase scenes and the sex, then it works. But if you examine the integrity of the structure, it's obvious that the sub-text of the original is lacking. Yes, Jesse prefers to steal European cars rather than American, and yes, his preferred lover is French and intellectually superior (if you accept the notion that pop culture is lesser than high Euro culture) and his escape venue is Mexico rather than Italy.

Where it breaks down is in the inconsistency of the symbolic thread -- the influence of European culture on North American is almost completely ignored. If Belmondo's Michel is a European acting out an American fantasy, then Gere's Jesse should be an American Europhile.

Perhaps this why McBride's remake fails to move beyond the visceral despite the pop-culture landscapes of Los Angeles and the authentic modernist cycloramas that the bars, clubs, walls, suburbs and automobiles provide. While Hollywood is the cradle of world film and it's a nice touch that the lovers end up at the gates of Errol Flynn's old estate, even make love against a giant movie projection, this aspect is merely for technical effect rather than intellectual gestation.

You definitely believe the character of Patricia as the American ingenue in Paris, but do you believe the character of Monica, the French architectural student in L.A.?

McBride also re-engineers the final stanza. Like Michel, Jesse also finally connects with his Godot in a Sports Car, Berudi (versus Antoine), the master criminal who owes him a payoff. Again the police converge, having been tipped off by his lover's betrayal, but instead of taking a fatal bullet while fleeing, our hero ends up in a freeze-frame of ambiguous possibilities, pointing his 9 mm automatic at the clowns who play at being cop.

Then, as the credits roll, a punk version of Jesse's mantra song, Breathless. Not bad, even if it lacks the misogynistic contempt of the Godard ending. As usual, Hollywood opts for the sentimental, and this time Jim McBride is its puppeteer....

© LR 10/83


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