Breathless: the most perverse American remake ever made

(USA, 1983, Jim McBride)

Rule number one of the remake: don’t touch a classic. Classics generally can’t be improved upon and the results are at best redundant, if not outright risible. Even with due consideration of CITY OF ANGELS desecration of WINGS OF DESIRE, Gus Van Sant’s misbegotten PSYCHO, or Michael Haneke’s bafflingly pointless shot-for-shot remake of his own film, BREATHLESS is without a doubt the most perverse American remake ever made, but only those who completely misunderstand Godard’s original would consider it a sacrilege. While it’s easy to see why snobbish critics were horrified by the film’s gaucheness when it was originally released, Jim McBride’s film anticipates Quentin Tarantino’s Americanization of Godard’s Franco-fication of American popular culture (not unlike THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN reclaiming the Western setting from Kurosawa’s THE SEVEN SAMURAI). No wonder Tarantino claims to love the film. Like Tarantino, McBride not only liberally quotes from Godard (the original working title was A BOUT DE SOUFFLE MADE IN THE USA) but also makes references to the original noirs Godard was riffing on — towards the end of the film, our two protagonists-on-the-run wander into a movie theater playing GUN CRAZY. Not just empty homage, McBride also nicely captures the hip existential nihilism of Godard’s debut.

Sure, unlike the original, it’s no landmark in film history that permanently altered cinematic vocabulary. But it’s still a lot of fun. Richard Gere is the best I’ve seen him — he’s perfectly cast as the rockabilly-loving, Jerry Lee Lewis-obsessed, Silver Surfer-reading car thief who lives in the moment and whose penis appears to flap around in every other frame. The film also captures the garish and sleazy charms of Los Angeles and is surprisingly faithful to the source material. On the downside is the female lead; the inexpressive and inert Valerie Kaprisky is utterly devoid of Jean Seberg’s charms. McBride also fucks up the ending, but give the film a chance before treating it like the bad joke it’s now considered. It’s surprisingly well-directed from someone whose once-promising career sputtered in the 1990s and never recovered (his most recent feature-length is a made-for-VH1 Meatloaf biopic). After BREATHLESS, McBride went on to direct the underrated THE BIG EASY, the 1987 Cajun neo-noir that anticipated the revival of that genre in the 1990s. His Jerry Lee Lewis fixation would later yield 1989 biopic GREAT BALLS OF FIRE! (which anticipated RAY and WALK THE LINE). Today, McBride might still be best known to cinephiles for his first film, DAVID HOLZMAN’S DIARY, one of the first mockumentaries.

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