Release Date(s)1983 (March 28, 2023)
Studio(s)Orion Pictures/MGM (Fun City Editions/Vinegar Syndrome)
- Film/Program Grade: C-
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B
Breathless is an updated, Americanized adaptation of the 1959 film of the same name directed by Jean-Luc Godard that starred Jean-Paul Belmondo as a coarse young Frenchman who modeled his behavior on characters played by Bogart and Cagney. This 1983 film draws on elements of the original while adding different layers to its central character.
Jesse Lujack (Richard Gere) is a petty thief who lives hedonistically from day to day, satisfying his taste for fast cars and pretty women. He lives on the edge, often ticking off the wrong people and then skipping town. Needing to get out of Las Vegas fast, he steals a car and makes for Los Angeles. A highway patrolman chases after him for speeding and reckless driving, and Jesse kills him in a confrontation that is intentionally ambiguous. Was the shooting an accident or intentional?
On the run, he moves in with Monica (Valerie Kaprisky), whom he knows only from a weekend fling in Las Vegas. A young university student, Monica clearly is attracted to Jesse’s passion and wild ways. Even when she realizes Jesse is the subject of a statewide manhunt, she can’t tear herself away from him. The pursuit of the couple covers many locations in L.A. and beyond as they head for the safety of Mexico. Between bouts of eluding the law, they take time to make passionate love, as Jesse assumes his wits and ability to stay at least one step ahead of the cops will be enough to assure his freedom.
Gere’s character is a tough one to warm to. Jesse is a low-life huckster who cares only about himself. We know nothing about his past other than that he’s amassed a police record and left numerous aliases behind him. He hot-wires cars—usually fast ones—and steals them whenever he needs a ride. In trying to collect money he’s owed, he deals with a number of equally unsavory individuals. Wild boy Jesse is not very bright to think he can outsmart the police even though he’s been labeled a cop killer. Monica is his refuge and we sense that he genuinely loves her, but we know their relationship is doomed. He’s deliberately off-putting, but we’re intrigued up to a point. He’s so conceited and self-absorbed that we wait to see in him some redeeming qualities but they never emerge.
Gere overacts shamelessly and often appears awkward as the free-spirited Jesse. This is far from a stellar performance. Kaprisky is a French actress who conveys innocent sensuality but is otherwise bland as Monica and her character comes off merely as a device to sex up the plot and move it along. She does get plenty of opportunity to showcase her flawless body, but her dialogue delivery is mechanical. The role is too large for her and she often seems lost in scenes, looking to Gere for guidance.
Director Jim McBride (Great Balls of Fire) had the task of reworking a classic film, making comparisons inevitable. He and co-writer L.M. Kit Carson (Paris, Texas) set the film between the recognizable and stylized fantasy such as the red-drenched images in early scenes when Jesse speeds to Los Angeles. But the film never comes together, and is ultimately unsatisfying. We never become fully invested in the characters and remain unengaged spectators to their tragic journey.
Breathless was shot on 35 mm film by director of photography Richard H. Kline with Panavision Panaflex cameras and lenses, and presented in the widescreen aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Fun City Edition’s new 2K restoration is sourced from its 35 mm interpositive. The picture is clear with sharp detail, particularly in Jesse’s outfits, water in a swimming pool, piles of debris in a junk yard, Monica’s strands of hair, and bricks in walls. Valerie Kaprisky’s complexion is creamy and smooth. As Jesse heads to L.A. in a stolen Porsche, back-screen projection suggests a blazing red sunset. In one scene, Jesse and Monica make love behind a movie screen on which the black-and-white film noir Gun Crazy is projected.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 Mono DTS-HD Master Audio with optional subtitles in English SDH. Dialogue is clear and distinct. Valerie Kaprisky’s French-accented delivery has charm but lacks emotional depth. Jack Nitzsche’s score is used sparingly. More prominent are pop songs including Breathless (Jerry Lee Lewis), Bad Boy (Mink DeVille), What a Wonderful World (Sam Cooke), and Message of Love (The Pretenders). Sound effects of roaring car engines, a critical gun shot, screeches of speeding cars, and thuds of a fist fight amp up dramatic moments.
Bonus materials include the following:
- Audio Commentary by Glenn Kenny
- Isolated Music Track (1:40)
- Introduction by Jim McBride (:27)
- Making Breathless (31:08)
- Deleted Scenes (1:30 and 4:26)
- Alternate Ending (3:57)
- Theatrical Trailer (2:26)
- Image Gallery (2:57)
In his commentary, Glenn Kenny discusses the original French Breathless and compares aspects of it to the remake. As Jean-Paul Belmondo identified with Humphrey Bogart in the original, Jesse’ looks up to the comic book superhero Silver Surfer because both thrive on unlimited freedom. American and French cinephiles were against remaking an established classic. Kenny refers to Jesse as a “lunkhead.” Because Jim McBride had no real experience directing a picture, proposed stars and studio executives weren’t enthusiastic, so McBride was willing to take producer and co-writer credit only and allow someone else to direct. Several directors were assigned to the picture, but eventually went on to other projects, leaving McBride to direct. Though he had already been cast, Gere was initially reluctant to work with McBride, but they met and Gere liked the concept of Jesse. The film went through a revolving door of development, given the green light, having financial backing withdrawn with personnel assigned and then abandoning the project. A number of improbable touches contribute to the film’s sense of unreality. Kenny discusses a few of Richard Gere’s other movies and his ability to reveal different layers in his performances. Valerie Kaprisky is touching, innocent, with a teenager kind of appeal. The film took in $4.4 million on its opening weekend but was neither a box office nor critical success.
Making Breathless – In a casual, laid-back manner, director Jim McBride discusses his early career. When he felt ready to direct a feature film, he was advised to attach himself to a specific property to make it more attractive to studio heads. A major task was writing and developing the script. He had to figure a way to approach the story to make it “more like a Hollywood movie.” Universal liked it. Gere was suggested to play Jesse but McBride didn’t see him in the role. He envisioned Robert De Niro, but De Niro never committed. When De Niro finally said “No,” Universal dropped the project but it was picked up by Orion. Now the problem was that prospective actors didn’t want McBride to direct. With a start date looming, the film went into production with Richard Gere as star and McBride as director. Areas covered in this interview are Gere’s dedication to the role, the costumes, and re-shooting the ending, which didn’t work in previews. As far as the American box office, McBride notes “It did OK,” but it did extremely well in Europe, especially in France.
Deleted Scene #1 – This scene appeared between Jesse and Monica’s escape from the police and their arrival at the warehouse party.
Deleted Scene #2 – This scene appeared after Jesse and Monica park their car at the top of the hill at Errol Flynn’s ruined former estate. It was reshot and shortened for the final release cut of the film. In this version of the scene, Monica exits the car and follows Jesse, while in the reshot version, she remains in the car.
Alternate Ending – Multiple endings were shot for the film over a period of weeks and months following the main shooting. The filmmakers had to find an ending that matched the intended attitude and mood of the film. This is the ending from a pre-release version of the film extended to include Jesse’s death.
Image Gallery – In slideshow format, a series of color stills, a poster, and advertising layouts are shown.
Booklet – The enclosed 12-page booklet contains the essays Re-Make / Re-Model: Jim McBride Covers Breathless by Margaret Barton-Fumo, The Devil’s Blessing by Cristina Cacioppo, 6 color photos from the film, and a cast and key crew list.
Breathless makes a point of including references to the Godard version but has its own identity. Because it’s far more erotic than the original, a major problem is the incompatible performances of Gere and Kaprisky. While he’s virtually chewing up the scenery, she’s wooden. Director McBride exchanges nations and nationalities for his interpretation, setting the action in Los Angeles. Despite the “man on the run” concept, the film lacks narrative energy. Gere’s histrionic performance can’t compensate for a less than brisk pace. Script, direction, and actors fail to ignite dramatic fire.
- Dennis Seuling