There’s this scene in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960) where Jean Seberg holds up a reproduction of a Renoir for Jean-Paul Belmondo’s approval. “It’s not bad,” says Belmondo. “Renoir’s a really great painter,” says Seberg. Belmondo doesn’t budge: “I said it’s not bad.” Not to put too fine a point on it, but that’s a little like my feelings about Breathless itself. It formed the crest of the French New Wave. It’s a landmark on several fronts. Godard’s one of our true geniuses. But once you know more of Godard’s work and comprehend his debut’s historical significance, Breathless is finally, by the high standards set by Godard and his peers, not bad. In any case it’s no horrifying sacrilege to me that it was remade some years later, in Hollywood, with way more money, and Richard Gere. Worse things have happened to the movies. And Godard's Breathless is still there for us to see whenever we want.
The other Breathless (1983) was directed by Jim McBride, whose David Holzman’s Diary (1967), was not without its own postmodern ambitions. McBride co-wrote it with Holzman star Kit Carson, who wrote significant parts of Paris, Texas (1984). This Breathless reverses a number of Godard’s configurations: the girl’s a Parisian in America, rather than an American in Paris; the mise en scène’s characterized by flamboyant, art-directed artifice (rear projection, gels that swath entire scenes in one primary colour) rather than guerilla-style filmmaking (which yields its own sort of artifice); it attempts (rather laughably) to justify its characters’ actions, to psychologize them, rather than chalk their violence and betrayals up to genre dictates. Yet it shocked and sort of fascinated me just how faithful the other Breathless is to the story (if not the spirit) of the original, with Gere’s compulsive criminal, now very clearly a sociopath, killing a cop, living on the lam, and even resurrecting several of Belmondo’s gestures, such as his uses for newspapers. Instead of Bogart, he idolizes the Silver Surfer, which I like if for no other reason than every time he reads a Silver Surfer comic Brian Eno and Robert Fripp’s magical, woozily beautiful Evening Star bubbles up on the soundtrack. These are for me the best moments in the movie.
But man, there’s something unnerving about Gere talking to himself (sometimes in funny voices, sometimes vaguely ethnic), or singing (Jerry Lee Lewis), or dancing, with such utter, blazing conviction. I mean it. You have to admire it. Gere's on fire here, and it can be tough to watch. You might say that something in his performance, along with aspects of the narrative itself, looks forward to Nicolas Cage and his Elvis-loving Sailor in Wild at Heart (1990), though the latter film is obviously far more focused and confident in its stylistics, even if its particular mania has proved equally divisive. It’s amazing how much of Breathless Gere manages to spend shirtless, the character’s narcissism dovetailing nicely with what would appear to be the actor’s. “I know I’m crazy,” he says. “I can’t help it.” Poor guy. But here's the sticky question: are we actually supposed to like him? It’s hard to tell, and it only gets harder as thing go on. And on, and on. There’s a bit where Gere and the girl get busy in a movie theatre while Gun Crazy (1950) plays behind them. I found myself wishing they’d get out of the way so I could just watch Gun Crazy. At one point we see a bus stop advertising the Hollywood Wax Museum. It’s very apt. McBride’s adoration of cinema’s past lacks the same level of critical inquiry or playfulness we find in Godard (that's a lot to live up to, I know), so his Breathless, however curious an artifact, however weirdly entertaining, feels only intermittently breathless and rather often lifeless.