Jean Luc Godard’s Breathless was recently re-released. Having seen both it and Jim McBride’s poorly reviewed 1983 remake recently, I began to wonder which was better. Godard’s original is regularly hailed as the masterpiece of the French Nouvelle Vague, slick and cool, while full of subtext and vigorously innovative. To many, McBride’s decision to remake Breathless was sheer egotism, on a par with Werner Herzog’s well-meaning remake of Nosferatu. You have to admit, it’s a brave thing to remake a highly regarded masterpiece and, like Herzog, McBride pulls it off.
McBride’s film is a modern look at the outlaw, giving us a new, post-modern look at the myth of the American outsider, and it’s just as rewarding as Robert Altman’s early work. Richard Gere plays the outlaw as a hipster in an interesting performance. Oddly, coming as it does before Quentin Tarantino made his mark on cinema, it can’t help but feel anachronistic. It’s a performance that some may find tiresome, but who is really that taken by Belmondo’s cool but post-human lead performance in Godard’s 1959 original? Instead, Gere tears through every scene as his character tears through life.
While the original invites audiences to consider how much they depend on conventional film making codes and techniques, McBride questions issues that affect real life, such as, “How much would you be willing to throw away in order to live?” Gere’s hoodlum demands that the shackles of education and employment are tossed aside and forgotten. Valerie Kaprisky’s character, the object of Gere’s demands, is an aspiring architect. Why design buildings to last when, as one character states, nothing can. Gere’s car door is open and love beckons, so what will Kaprisky choose? Her inability to take the jump brings her back to the prison of a secure job.
The remake may be devoid of the infamous jump cuts and it may conventionally frame a scene, but it is not without its artistic touches. In what other Hollywood thriller would you see a big star strip naked while singing along to Suspicious Minds, which only he can hear, before jumping into Kaprisky’s shower for some more sex? And what about the red-tinted car sequences where the background is as fake and intangible as the ties that keep people stuck in dead-end jobs? And, without giving too much away, McBride’s ending is much more stylish, much more romantic and much more interesting than Godard’s bit of Gallic mistranslation.
The argument as to which version of Breathless is better will rage on. Stereotypically, the arty film fans will prefer Godard’s original and those who prefer non-challenging Hollywood movies will prefer the remake (if not dislike both). Both films are rewarding but completely different and cannot be compared; McBride’s film is about personal choices while Godard’s is about cinematic revolution. However, how much relevance to our real lives does Godard’s film really have? Is a critique on our cinema-going habits as important as, say, remebering bin day? Or is remebering bin day more important? This may be the argument of a philistine, but its an intriguing one nonetheless. Afterall, McBride’s film points out that we have choices in life, that not everything is pre-determined. And it’s more fun too.