Jim McBride, whose minor classic David Holzman’s Diary (1967) represents in retrospect promise unfulfilled, has chutzpah; his Breathless dares to remake the unremakeable by reversing, at least changing, key tacks and elements of the original, Jean-Luc Godard’s A bout de souffle (1959), arguably the most famous and certainly the most influential film ever made. Thus while Michel, Godard’s punk-protagonist, dreams of quitting a life of crime in France for flight to Italy, his McBridean counterpart, Jess, casts his eye, from the States, on Mexico; while Michel is in love with a resident American student, Jess is in love with a resident French student; while Michel acts out movies, Jess, the product of rock ’n’ roll, is given to breaking out into song and dance; and while Godard’s establishment-jolting style might be subtitled Studio Unbound, McBride’s film relishes the artifice of painted backdrops and back projection. Of course, McBride can go back into the studio from the position of advantage that Godard’s liberation from studio confinement has made available to him. In any case, his film tells essentially the same story.
An engrossing oddity, a dazzling entertainment, McBride’s Breathless falls far short of Godard’s. Some might even argue that this remake is superfluous, given that nearly every significant Western European or American film of the ’80s and ’90s, in one way or another, attempts to remake A bout de souffle in order to grapple with its immense influence. (Postulating an “anxiety of influence,” scholar Harold Bloom, lighting the way to this assessment, finds post-Romantic poetry grappling with the influence of, and repeatedly attempting to rewrite, William Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey.”) One might almost say that this cornerstone of the nouvelle vague, A bout de souffle (literally, “out of breath”), has given cinema its second wind following the debatable decision to experiment with sound. Wishful thinking: a character in Breathless proclaims, “Nothing lasts.”
It may well be a matter of pride with McBride; he may want to show that, alone among his peers, he isn’t overwhelmed by A bout de souffle’s shadow, a point he can best make, he might feel, by remaking directly the masterpiece that everyone else is remaking indirectly, and with such confidence and independence that he can impose all the pointed changes (and others) that I have catalogued. In contemporary cinema, it seems, there is no being out of Out of Breath, but at least McBride, McBride may be bragging, can stand lovingly on his own. Perhaps; but even he must face the music that not all his energies have worked to the benefit of his material. For instance, in A bout de souffle the “American innocent abroad” reverberates with Jamesian sociomythological meaning that McBride’s French substitute cannot hope to match; and, whereas the influence of movies on character formation, a brilliant theme of Godard’s, has been more psychological than political (hence, more critical), the parallel influence of rock music, with which McBride’s film concerns itself, has been more political than psychological. For me at least, rock as a shaping force inherently compels less interest. Whereas film is an art form in itself, rock music is, rather, the debasement of an art form already in existence. As a consequence, while Godard’s film tackles a complex subject, how we negotiate (and half-create) reality through popular culture, McBride’s film more often finds itself, along with its protagonist, looking into an aural mirror: raucous music as a form of narcissism or onanism. I like McBride; but there is more for the mind in Godard’s eye than there is in McBride’s ear.
That said, how many American movies of the past quarter-century provide such a marvelous time as does Breathless—for example, in the terrific final shot that stops motion on Jess’s reaching to the ground for a gun in his confrontation with police? Unlike Godard, whose Michel is shot to death on a Paris street, McBride, like almost all Americans a sentimentalist, can’t let go of this boy; the freeze frame preserves Jess for us, fixing him beyond the capacity of the movie police to unload the heart and the life out of him. McBride has so convincingly established the realm of his artistic creation that we do not think, “He doesn’t want to show what must happen next, which is Jess’s death.” Rather, the freeze frame formally completes the action and the film itself, holding Jess back forever from any next moment when police bullets take him down. McBride’s directorial conviction, then, precludes our mistaking his Breathless for reality, where Jess would be killed. McBride’s film is its own reality.
In A bout de souffle, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg give two of the most graceful, engaging and enduring performances in all of cinema. By comparison, Valerie Caprisky in Breathless especially comes up short—although she looks great naked (as indeed Seberg did fully dressed). On the other hand, Richard Gere is riveting as Jess—albeit in a role far less intriguing than the one that carried Belmondo brilliantly to stardom. Cumulatively, Gere’s portrait of Jess finds in the boy’s addiction to beat-silly music a touching portrait of corrupted, wasted youth. Physically, his is one of the most kinetic and feverishly alive performances ever. (Compare goonish John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, John Badham, 1977.) Gere is no Belmondo; but he’s Gere—and wonderful.
However, I’m with Godard; I, too, would have let the boy go. Indeed, departing from A bout de souffle, neither can McBride let the girl let the boy go. But this also befits the sentimental nature of ’80s America in contradistinction to dear Jean-Luc—unsentimental any time, any place.
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