May 31, 2010

Breathless (1983)


Another reviewer described Breathless as a return of serve. Jean Luc Goddard released his Breathless in 1961, it starred Jean Paul Belmondo as a French petty criminal who ends up killing a policeman and Jean Seaberg as his American girlfriend. Breathless made in 1983 returns the same concept to America: this time Richard Gere is the petty criminal and Valerie Kaprisky stars as his French girlfriend. The concept is the same- ie the criminal kills a policeman after a chase involving a stolen car, fixated on the girl he runs around an iconic city (LA in the American Version, Paris in the French) trying to seduce her, before ultimately being betrayed. The story isn't difficult: Goddard explained that a girl and a gun were all you needed for a movie and in both cases the girl and the gun are all that is really available. There are no other characters- there are just the central performances. You have to be ready here for a film that takes you along for a ride through a mood rather than through a story.

So is this ride worth it? Is the American ride worth it after we've already been on the French version. Goddard's film is an undoubted great, one of those films that makes France the land of cinema. Belmondo's side glance and Seaberg's cutting accent are icons of cinema: Kaprisky and Gere do not rise to those levels. Enough has been said by others about the fact that Kaprisky looks to be what she is in this film: an incredibly pretty girl but one without much acting ability. Gere on the other hand infuses the film with a maniacal energy, so different from Belmondo's languid cool. The American film feels much faster, more hectic than the French. This has two effects: the first is that the American movie is much easier to watch. Its quick and its fun: the music is great and the pace frenetic. The moods are therefore different. The French film is more complicated, more philosophical- it is about choice- the American movie is about two people, a guy and a girl who are literally mad. The real return of serve from the States to Breathless was not this movie which shares its title and concept, but Bonnie and Clyde, a far better film about love, sex and violence.

Does that mean this film has nothing to say? Of course not, it is just not a profound cinematic document. What we learn from the film is the craziness of the two protagonists: Valerie's Monica constantly tells us that Gere's Jesse is crazy. But to suggest that her actions are reasonable is to redefine logic. Seaberg's character is far more confident and interesting than Kaprisky who exists as a sexual object. A girl in a short skirt who runs around with the American college elite. In a sense there isn't much to separate Jesse from the Professors that she normally meets: if she has a mind the latter don't cultivate it, if she has a gene for excitement he does. Energy and bustle are the heart of this movie- "You know me Tony all or nothing" is Jesse's epitaph- he lives life to the full and neglects others around him. Both Jesse and Monica face problems that are only theirs: bound in with characters that are by their nature self loving and other ignoring. He is a perpetual adolescent but then so is she, as played by Kaprisky. Neither are realistically childlike- they know the adult world- but both are self centered and unmannered.

I don't think this is a bad film- it suffers by comparisons with a great film and I can't quite tear my mind away from the comparison- but it has energy and vivacity. Kaprisky is an unworthy successor to Seaberg- but Gere does his best (occasionally his performance seems as though it is too worked) and the film passes enjoyably. Profundity is too sleek and slow for this jazzed up Breathless: but it still manages a kind of creation of empathy and that's an achievement.

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