When it was announced in the early eighties that Jean-Luc Godard’s French New Wave classic À bout de soufflé (1960) was to be remade as a vehicle for the then rising star Richard Gere, you can quite imagine the critics sharpening their knives in readiness for what was to come. Sure enough, when the film was released during the summer of 1983, the initial reception was far from positive. Slowly over time, in the great tradition of many much-maligned films, it has acquired a cult following – with admirers including respected critic Mark Kermode.
For his reworking of the story, director and co-writer Jim McBride retained the basic premise of Godard’s film, but reversed the nationalities of its two lead characters, together with substituting Paris for L.A. Therefore the French small-time crook from the original - memorably played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, this time becomes a prolific American car thief by the catchy moniker of Jesse Lujack (Gere).
We’re first introduced to rockabilly Lujack as he’s heading from Las Vegas back to L.A. in a hot stolen Porsche, talking incessantly to himself and warbling along to his favourite Jerry Lee Lewis track. We are treated to some dreadful back projection work at this stage, which appears to be a cheeky nod to all those old movies from the sixties – and the first indication that this film is not going to take itself too seriously. When Lujack is pulled over en route by a traffic cop, he recklessly shoots the officer and soon finds himself a fugitive. It emerges that Lujack has become infatuated by a French UCLA student named Monica (Valérie Kaprisky), whom he first met some time ago in Vegas, but is now living in L.A. Love-struck Lujack is determined to scrape enough money together and persuade the young woman to run away with him to Mexico - the fact that the police are never far behind is just a minor inconvenience.
From the outset it's clear that Lujack is a complete narcissist, spending much of the movie strutting about in an open shirt and sporting the most ridiculous pair of trousers - surely these were not remotely fashionable even back in the eighties. At one point, with little provocation, he even breaks into a rendition of Elvis crooning 'Suspicious Minds'. Poor Monica acknowledges he’s crazy but, against her better judgement, falls for his charms anyway. To satisfy Gere's ardent fans, McBride throws in a steamy love scene – which also shows the hazards of what might happen when a couple become too amorous within the confines of a shower enclosure. Throughout the film I couldn't help imagining Nicolas Cage playing the lead instead of Gere, going completely over-the-top in his customary style. Ironically, the two actors would play brothers the following year in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club (1984), with Cage typically playing the wild sibling.
Breathless is perhaps ahead of its time by throwing in astute pop culture references. For instance, there’s a scene where the comic book obsessed Lujack gets into an argument with a smart alec kid at a newsstand over the virtues of Marvel’s Silver Surfer. It’s a priceless moment that could have been written by Quentin Tarantino – who does indeed count this film as one of his favourites and it has clearly influenced his early work.
As Breathless is really all about Gere’s character, everyone else plays second fiddle. The star has been blessed with some very strong leading ladies during his career, including Debra Winger, Diane Lane, and Catherine Zeta Jones. Sadly in this film striking newcomer Kaprisky is saddled with a very one-dimensional role. Even though she is never expected to deliver any lengthy heartfelt dialogue, her inexperience in front of the camera still shows at times. One of my favourite character actors, manic-eyed John P. Ryan, also stars as a Lieutenant doggedly tracking Gere. I thought Ryan was terrific in Larry Cohen’s quirky It’s Alive and as the sadistic warden in Runaway Train, but in this he gets precious little screen time.
The film benefits from a deliciously cool soundtrack, credited to Jack Nitzsche, who had won an Oscar the previous year for his work on Gere’s smash hit An Officer and a Gentleman (1982). It successfully combines high-spirited rock and roll with sounds from the eighties by bands such as The Pretenders, often during some fun chase sequences. McBride has a good visual style, managing to make L.A. look fresh and interesting, even though it has been used as a location countless times before - sometimes this is achieved simply by shooting characters against the many colourful murals that adorn the City. Watch too for a wonderful scene when the couple take refuge in a cinema, hiding behind a huge screen while an old black and white movie plays, and as the police search for them among the seating. The sheer exuberance of Gere's performance drives the film along and, for those willing to overlook numerous shortcomings, it manages to offer a thoroughly entertaining ride.
Breathless was originally rated 18 for its UK cinema release, due to some full-frontal nudity from both leads and a sex scene. It was also cut by the BBFC by 24 seconds to remove a sequence showing Gere hot-wiring a car and picking a lock. The film was later released uncut and downgraded to a 15 certificate for the 2001 DVD from MGM, and it is this version that Second Sight Films have released on Blu-ray.
The spotless 1080p transfer preserves the original 1.85:1 ratio. This image is consistently bright and detailed – red and blue is used extensively throughout the film, and this really jumps off the screen. Contrast levels are also very pleasing. The clarity is such that you can even briefly spot a reflection of the crew on the blank TV screen in Monica's apartment. The audio is presented in LPCM Mono. Music plays an important part in the film and this is delivered with plenty of verve. Dialogue is also well-defined throughout and free of any discernible issues and English subtitles are included.
Breathless was released on BD in the US by Shout Factory during 2015, in a region “A” locked edition, though this was barebones. Thankfully Second Sight Films have made more of an effort for the UK release, providing two new featurettes, both produced by Carl Daft of Severin Films.
Mark Kermode on Breathless (24:42) - The esteemed critic provides an insightful appraisal, trying to convince any doubters out there that the 1983 remake of Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de soufflé is not in fact the trash others may have lead you to believe. He even considers the Richard Gere reworking of Breathless better than the original.
Still Breathless (11:28) - A new interview with actress Valérie Kaprisky who explains that she was a novice at acting when the producers of Breathless came to Paris in the early eighties and auditioned hundreds of actresses for the part of French student Monica. Kaprisky was so naïve at this point that she didn’t realise it was necessary to learn lines for the audition, but still managed to pass a screen test – and was star struck at going to Hollywood for the first time. After the very poor reception of Breathless, the actress returned to France and has worked mainly in television ever since.
Breathless is available on Blu-ray now from Second Sight Films