When Jim McBride’s Breathless (1983), a fast and loose remake of Jean-Luc Godard’s French New Wave Classic A bout de soufflé (1960), was released in theaters, it infuriated cineastes and film critics who couldn’t believe that the filmmaker had the audacity to remake such a highly regarded film with the likes of hunky actor Richard Gere and then-unknown actress Valerie Kaprisky, making her American debut. They couldn’t wrap their collective heads around McBride’s stylish reimaging of Godard’s film, updating it for the 1980s complete with ample nudity, numerous comic book references, and a rockabilly-heavy soundtrack that is as bold a cinematic statement today as it was back then.
Breathless adheres to A bout de soufflé’s basic premise as it chronicles the volatile love affair between a small-time crook and his foreigner girlfriend. Jesse (Gere) is a car thief who wants to scrape together enough money to take his French girlfriend Monica (Kaprisky) to Mexico. His life gets complicated after accidentally killing a police officer and the ensuing manhunt puts a considerable strain on his relationship with her.
We first meet Jesse emerging from a casino in Las Vegas bristling with smarm and charm in equal measure. He’s decked out in a powder blue suite and red ruffled tuxedo dress shirt, which establishes Breathless’ saturated, comic book color scheme. As Godard did with handheld camerawork and jump cuts in his version, McBride makes bold stylistic choices with his version as evident in the scene where Jesse drives back to Los Angeles in a stolen Porsche with Jerry Lee Lewis blasting away on the stereo. The entire scene is saturated with a red filter and utilizes the old school rear projection technique of a desert background. By doing this, the filmmaker is drawing attention to the artifice of the film itself. It’s almost as if the entire film is taking place in Jesse’s mind or, rather, we are seeing the world through his distinctive point-of-view.
Richard Gere plays Jesse as a grinning opportunist always looking for an angle to play, always hustling for money and treating the world as a playground to exploit. The actor fully commits to the role using his trademark charm to make an essentially unlikable character appealing through sheer force of will. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that this is Gere at the apex of his physical beauty, which McBride shows off at every opportunity, including a startling amount of nudity at the time (Gere bares it all). What makes his performance so captivating is all the choices he makes, like the little dance move Jesse does while trying to hitch a ride. The actor wisely doesn’t try to ape Jean-Paul Belmondo’s brooding, Marlon Brando-esque performance in the original, opting for an energetic take that is so interesting to watch as, at times, Jesse is practically jumping out of his skin with vitality.
The actor does his best to instill some substance into a simple character that is comprised entirely of attitude and cocky swagger. The Silver Surfer interludes serve this purpose. Jesse is obsessed with the comic book, relating to the eponymous protagonist’s ruminations while roaming through the universe alone. There’s a crucial exchange partway through the film between Jesse and some kid at a newsstand about the Surfer with the former arguing, “You know why he stays? He stays because he likes it here on Earth. He wants to help the people out.” To which, the latter counters, “The Surfer’s nuts to hang around. He knows that life on Earth has no meaning – it’s chaos, it’s out of control! But he’s got a chance to break way. I mean, he’s plugged into the galaxy. He’s got the power cosmic! Only a jerk would stay when he could go.” Jesse clearly identifies with the Surfer and these words, coupled with a sobering reminder in the newspaper of the cop he killed has him reconsidering his decision to stick around but he does because of his love for Monica.
Valerie Kaprisky, with her stunning, fresh-faced sexiness, certainly looks the part of a beautiful UCLA student majoring in architecture, but her lack of English-speaking prowess is distracting. It looks like she’s concentrating too much on speaking correctly and not enough on acting or emoting. That being said, she has undeniable chemistry with Gere and they look great together.
Like A bout de soufflé showed off 1960s Paris, Breathless takes us on a tour through ‘80s L.A., including memorable stops at the murals in Venice Beach, Westwood Beach, the Pines, and, of course, downtown. McBride does a fantastic job conveying a sense of place – so much so that the city is practically another character.
McBride has a keen understanding of the power of cinema in sequences like the one where Jesse and Monica make out in a 1957 Thunderbird convertible to Link Wray’s “Jack the Ripper” on the soundtrack. The filmmaker understands that this is what makes cinema so exciting – the marriage of attractive actors, American iconography and the right song to go with it. He’s not afraid to mix things up, sliding in a few choice contemporary cuts, like a chase sequence scored to the fantastic song, “Message of Love” by the Pretenders.
Jim McBride was an independent filmmaker that struggled to find work after making Glen and Randa (1971). To make ends meet, he drove a taxicab and taught film at New York University grad school. After writing several screenplays that were never made, he moved to L.A. in the mid-1970s and “finally decided that the best approach for me was to present the studios with something that already existed.” He had been obsessed with Jean-Luc Godard’s A bout de soufflé for 20 years and credited it with inspiring him to be a filmmaker.
As luck would have it, actor/screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson, who had worked with McBride on David Holzman’s Diary (1967), knew Godard and met with him in L.A. while he was meeting with studios about backing a film. He asked Carson and McBride to drive him around the city for a week. At the end of it they told him about their idea to remake A bout de soufflé in L.A. Carson remembered, “A day later, when we went to pick him up, he picked up a paper napkin, and wrote on it, ‘You have the rights to Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard,’ and handed it to us.” With producer Martin Erlichman, McBride made a deal with Universal Pictures in 1978 with Gary Busey set to star. The deal fell through and McBride spent two years trying to get actors like Robert De Niro, John Travolta, and Al Pacino interested. They weren’t because McBride wasn’t well-known enough and he found that “movie stars are terrified that if they make one wrong movie, it will destroy their careers. So it takes them forever to make a decision.”
McBride found a copy of the original film’s screenplay in a French magazine and translated it into English. Then, he and Carson worked from it, dropping and adding things, making it their own, and “by the end it was something very different from the original, for better or worse.” McBride has said that he wanted to make his version “more passionate and emotional, though the emotions are exaggerated in the way that Hollywood movies used to be.”
Universal dropped the project and Orion Pictures took it over. McBride approached Richard Gere who was also apprehensive about working with an unknown director until the former agreed to give the latter say in rewriting the script and casting actors and hiring the crew. While figuring out the approach to Jesse, Gere realized that the “root of him is music – music manifested by his moods. He uses the energy and emotions of the things around him to his own purposes.”
Erlichman spotted topless photographs of Valerie Kaprisky in French magazine Parish Match in June 1982 and asked her to read for the film even though she had only done some modeling with a few parts in French films. She felt that it went terribly but was called back the next day. Two days later, she was flown to L.A. for a screen test. It was a five-minute test that required her to be naked. To make her feel more comfortable, Gere also performed in the nude even though it wasn’t required. Kaprisky won the role and was told that Gere wanted her cast because she was someone he would like to make love to: “I think it shows in the movie. If you don’t really feel like doing it, it shows,” she said. Furthermore, the actress said of the film’s explicit love scenes, “We were not acting the love scenes. They were half real.”
The day after he finished shooting Breathless, Gere left to make Beyond the Limit (1983) in Mexico. During that time, Orion wanted to rush the release of Breathless, forcing McBride and his editor to make “very quick choices which weren’t necessarily the right choices,” Gere said. When the actor returned, he and McBride “sort of forced the situation,” and convinced the studio not to release the film, thereby allowing them to shoot new scenes and take more time on the editing.
Erlichman knew going in that Breathless would be a tough film to sell: “It was against the form of what has been accepted. There hasn’t been a major motion picture hit in years with a star who dies in the end. Also, anti-heroes aren’t big with your basic movie-going crowd, the 14-to 24-year olds.” The film made $4.4 million on its opening weekend. After two months, it grossed just over $22 million from an $8 million budget.
Breathless received negative reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film two-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “The result is a stylistic exercise without any genuine human concerns we can identify with – and yet, an exercise that does have a command of its style, is good-looking, fun to watch, and develops a certain morbid humor.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “I still don’t understand why Mr. McBride and Mr. Carson elected to do the film but, considering the more obvious possible pitfalls, they could have done a lot worse. That is meant to be praise.” The Washington Post’s Gary Arnold wrote, “Presumably, McBride and Carson convinced themselves that they were being true to the spirit of the original, but their notion of a star-crossed romance played out between lovers attracted to criminal extremes is fundamentally devoted to pandering to a certain star image—Richard Gere as hunky jailbait.” Finally, the Chicago Reader’s Dave Kehr wrote, “McBride’s presentation of Richard Gere is frankly pornographic, perhaps the only way to handle this Victor Mature of the 80s; Valerie Kaprisky costars—meekly.”
Breathless is about being young and in love, not caring what anyone else thinks. Jesse lives for and in the moment. The problem is that no one else thinks that way, including Monica. He lives in another era, listening to 1950s music and stealing cars from that era while also reading ‘60s era Silver Surfer comic books. He doesn’t fit into the materialistic ‘80s and this is represented by the push and pull of the film’s style, utilizing Classic Hollywood techniques like rear projection with music video-like moments.
Breathless is an ode to impulsive, passionate young love but tempered with its fleeting nature. Monica and Jesse have a telling exchange partway through the film where she says, “I’d love to know what’s behind that face of yours. I stare at you and stare at you and can’t see anything,” to which replies, “What do you want to know? I’m from Earth, I’m a person, I love you.” For her, that’s not enough. As she tells him earlier, “You roll the dice too much,” and she’s right. She wants something more meaningful but he doesn’t let anyone get past the brash façade because his instinct is to mistrust everyone. This ultimately dooms their relationship.
Adams, Sam. “Interview: L.M. Kit Carson.” A.V. Club. August 19, 2011.
Farber, Stephen. “A Maverick and a Star Remake the Classic Breathless.” The New York Times. November 21, 1982.
Lovell, Glen. “McBride Bankable with Success of Breathless.” Boca Raton News. July 22, 1983.
Lubow, Arthur. “The Film is Over, but Valerie Kaprisky is Still Breathless Over Richard Gere.” People. May 30, 1983.
Moynihan, Maura and Andy Warhol. “Richard Gere: Beyond the Limit with the Star of The Cotton Club.” Interview. October 1983.
Stewart, Justin. “Interview: Jim McBride.” Film Comment. January 31, 2013.