Breathless (1983)

The most impressive thing about the 1993 genre spoof Fatal Instinct is that it riffs on two genres at once.  1980s & 90s erotic thrillers were already such a direct photocopy of 1940s & 50s noir that it’s difficult to tell where one genre’s tropes end and the other’s begin in that Carl Reiner goofaround.  It turns out that Fatal Instinct had already been outdone by the 1983 remake of Breathless, though, which adds a whole other layer of post-modern cultural ouroboros to the noir nostalgia cycle.  Whereas Fatal Instinct is a disposable novelty that clowns about at the intersection of erotic thrillers & classic noir, Breathless makes an extra pit stop at Jean-Luc Godard’s doorstep to translate that genre overlap into high art – the very pinnacle of the artform, even.  If anything, the entire Hollywood noir experiment was only worthwhile so that it could be filtered through French New Wave art snobbery and then later perfected in this 80s pop art orgasm.  I’m only partially kidding.

I was surprised to swoon so hard for the 80s Breathless update, since the 1960 original didn’t exactly wow me when I saw it at the New Orleans French Film Fest in 2018.  I did appreciate the ways its flippant story of a womanizing car thief was blatantly influenced by American gangster pictures, filtered through a more casual, hands-on French New Wave aesthetic, then later filtered again through New Hollywood crime pictures like Bonnie & Clyde back in America, and the cycle goes on. I struggled at times with the poisonous machismo of the film’s chain-smoking antihero, though, even though he admits up front to being an asshole and most of the humor positions him as the butt of the joke. Even with all that self-deprecation, the movie thinks he’s a lot cooler than he is.  The original Breathless has a handheld, exciting immediacy to it that makes its place in the Important Movies canon immediately apparent, but it could easily be remade as a (hyperviolent) Pepé Le Pew cartoon, which was a huge turnoff for me at the time.

The remake doesn’t really do anything to soften or rehabilitate its party boy hedonist antihero other than casting a young, hot-to-trot Richard Gere in the role.  Somehow, that’s more than enough.  Gere’s performance as the heartbreaking, carjacking Jesse Lujack is just as much of a slimy little shit as Jean-Paul Belmondo was in the original, but he’s a thousand times cooler while smoking a thousand fewer cigarettes.  And maybe that’s just a result of my ignorant biases as an uncultured American.  This is the one American remake of a foreign art film I can name that out-performs its source material specifically because it is American.  Gere plays around with Silver Surfer comics, Jerry Lee Lewis cassette tapes, and loaded revolvers as American fetish objects, packaging his brash boyishness as a rock n’ roll cowboy routine – a young, dangerous, beautifully idiotic nation personified.  He makes total sense as a lethal object of desire, luring a French college student (Valérie Kaprisky) to ruin through his roadside-diner sex appeal.  Well, that and his muscular, naked body.

The Breathless remake is a post-modern pop art melt down.  You don’t need to hear the third-act Link Wray needle drop to know Tarantino drooled all over this in his formative years as a pop-culture obsessed video store clerk.  It dresses up 1950s jukebox rock in the sneers & plaids of 1980s punk.  Before Gere starts fiddling with his library of cassettes in a stolen Cadillac, it’s not even clear what decade we’re in.  Is the Argento crosslighting of the dive-bar neons supposed to feel modern & fresh, or is it a throwback to the rock n’ roll diners of old?  Is this more of an erotic 80s update to the Godard original, or a colorized echo of the noir films that inspired it?  You can’t mistake the country it’s set in for any other place in the world, though.  As much as the 1960s Breathless was in love with American crime pictures as the pinnacle of the artform, its 1980s remake was the real deal – truly American in all the best & worst ways, and truly the height of cinema.

Full disclosure: I had already written and scheduled this review before it was announced that Jean-Luc Godard had died at 91-years-old. I’m noting that timeline just to make it clear that I did not post this as some kind of gotcha putdown of a great artist who recently passed. If anything, it speaks to Godard’s influence on the medium of filmmaking that his work was already on the tip of some amateur, genre-nerd blogger’s tongue before his name was in the daily headlines.

-Brandon Ledet

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