In 1983, an American neo-noir drama directed by Jim McBride and starring Richard Gere hit theaters. But the film’s origins made sure that Breathless would never be just your average, run-of-the-mill neo-noir, for it is in fact a remake of Jean-Luc Godard’s first feature film À bout de souffle (1960), one of the most notable examples of French New Wave cinema that was, in turn, heavily inspired by American neo-noirs. The original, based on a screenplay by François Truffaut, follows Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a young French criminal whose behavior emanates Humphrey Bogart’s movie persona. After committing a crime that turns him into a wanted felon, the protagonist seeks refuge with his love interest Patricia (Jean Seberg), an American girl studying in Paris. In McBride’s version, both the setting and the characters’ nationalities have been reversed, with car thief Jesse Lujack being an American driving from Las Vegas to Los Angeles in a stolen Porsche, intent on surprising French UCLA student Monica Poiccard (played by Valérie Kaprisky) who he had a two-day fling with while she was in Las Vegas. His mission? To get her to drop everything and go to Mexico with him. Driven entirely by impulse and not giving much thought to either his actions or their probable (if not certain) consequences, Jesse accidentally kills a police officer and, although visibly shaken, flees the scene of the crime, committed to following through on his initial plan to run away across the border with the woman he claims to love.
McBride’s remake is about a lot of things—and unhealthy masculinity is one of them. This is a theme the director would go on to explore in his following two movies, the 1986 neo-noir romantic thriller The Big Easy starring Dennis Quaid and the 1989 biographical film about Jerry Lee Lewis called Great Balls of Fire, with Quaid in the lead role yet again. Due to their shared theme, it is argued that the three movies make for an unofficial trilogy of sorts, albeit one devoid of any narrative similarities. Breathless, as the first of the three installments, goes all-in with its depiction of a textbook narcissist. And as if to prove that very point, McBride goes above and beyond to showcase that Gere’s Jesse is not merely an aspect of this film—his character is Breathless, in more ways than one. With an adoration for rockabilly pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis (whose eponymous song is, unsurprisingly, featured rather prominently in the movie) and Marvel’s superhero the Silver Surfer, Jesse lives a life of reckless abandon, never hesitating to seize any given moment as best as he possibly can.
On the one hand, this makes him hella charming, clearly outlining why Monica finds him so irresistible, well against her better judgment. He is free and unrestrained, full of vibrant energy that keeps him on his toes (and everyone he comes into contact with on theirs) and ensures he is always on the move, never missing out on the opportunity to sing along to a favorite tune or talk to himself by means of narrating his own life out loud, as if he were in a comic book. After all, he does identify with the Silver Surfer, “a space-lost freak lookin’ for love…He’s got this problem with his girlfriend, they’re trapped on two different galaxies”, as he refers to him while explaining the hero’s origin story to Monica. Jesse, too, is madly in love, trying to get the girl that leaves him breathless to leave her galaxy and join him in his. For him, each new moment is a chance to move forward, a possibility for taking action and making something happen—whether those actions imply stealing a car, murdering someone and then running away from the crime scene or trying to convince a girl he had spent a weekend with to leave her life behind in order to be with him. But he does not stop once to consider the consequences of said actions, let alone think about the future. Because if he dared stand still, the unsavory shadow aspects of his lifestyle, personality and life choices would momentarily catch up with him.
As free and unrestrained as he may be, and as deeply in love as he proposes to be, Jesse is, in reality, a blissfully unaware, walking, talking collection of red flags. Breathless can, therefore, also be seen as a cautionary tale that, rather unsubtly, hits us over the head with every possible warning sign pertaining to relationships with narcissists. The film’s protagonist is quick to suppress emotions such as fear or worry, knowing all too well that succumbing to them would only result in a downward spiral he could never dig his way out of. Instead, he channels them into sexual energy, thereby enabling it to become a coping mechanism. This means that it is not Monica he loves, but the rush and excitement that go hand in hand with attraction. And that rush is what he needs in order to keep going without a moment’s pause. Without a chance to breathe.
This lust-induced rush is all-consuming, successfully giving way to Jess’ unflattering character traits and behavioral patterns, as he disregards his love interest’s wishes, brings her in harm’s way, manipulates her emotions, crosses all existing personal boundaries and changes on her in a manner of seconds. She, on the other hand, yearns for freedom and a sense of being care-free, which is something Jesse’s entire existence mirrors to a tee. Thus, the attraction. Her boundaries are poor and his masculinity is toxic. Their brief relationship is instantly codependent and their attachment styles are insecure.
And yet, Breathless brilliantly provides us with a highly visceral portrayal of the excitement that makes it seem all worthwhile. The colors are bright, the camerawork flows seamlessly, the pacing is the opposite of monotonous and dreary. Apart from being absolutely electric, Gere proves yet again that he has no problem with full frontal male nudity (after breaking the ice in Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo), while Kaprisky spends the majority of the movie scantily clad, topless or fully nude. Their love scenes are sensual, yet unsurprisingly male-gazey. Because as stated before, Jesse is Breathless and vice versa. And his point of view is not only entirely self-absorbed, but also devoid of any kind of nuance. For Monica is treated as a blank canvas for him to project all of his sexual and romantic delusions onto, thereby being robbed of the opportunity to become a full-fledged and well-rounded female character with agency. Ironically enough, it is precisely Kaprisky’s questionable performance that reinforces one such reading— while being undeniably beautiful, she lacks both authenticity and believability, depth and objective. Her reactions are completely unmotivated, her lines devoid of meaning or emotion. And even though her portrayal was probably not purposefully flawed, it ultimately made sense in the context of both the narrative and the overall theme, turning her character into a mere signifier that panders to Jesse’s narrow-minded perspective of what a woman actually is.
Colorful, intense, thrilling and full of vigor, Breathless captures a kind of zest for life that, when used as a coping mechanism, ends up being a road to nowhere. Quentin Tarantino proclaimed that it was one of the “coolest” films ever, stating: “Here’s a movie that indulges completely all my obsessions—comic books, rockabilly music and movies.” And if you know where to look, the Silver Surfer poster seen in Mr. Orange’s apartment in Reservoir Dogs is a direct homage to McBride’s film that left many a viewer breathless.
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