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Which version leaves you short of breath?


A friend once told me they prefer the American remake of Breathless with Richard Gere than the Jean Luc-Godard classic.

I was sceptical to say the least,  A Bout de Soufflé ranks pretty highly up there for me personally, and I'm always cautious with western remakes, but I was open to being proved wrong.

Last week I watched it to see for myself.
A couple lit in red watch an old black and white movie
Breathless, Orion Pictures. 1983

Breathless


In the context of cinema history,  A Bout De Soufflé is more than just a film, it’s a landmark. One of the iconic films of the French New Wave, it encapsulates much of what the movement was about. For young cinephiles It can be one of the first foreign language, first black and white, first ‘art house’ films to discover. It’s a great introduction to non-mainstream cinema.

And often it becomes a favourite, because for a film that was made over 60 years ago, it holds up incredibly well.

That’s why my biggest criticism of the American remake is how badly it holds up today. For a film 23 years younger it looks a lot more dated.

In all its desire to express youthful energy and sexual liberation, so much of the film suffers under the weight of a sleazy Hollywood gaze. It’s an obvious criticism but one that is hard to overlook.

Maybe there’s an argument that this approach became an essential to Hollywood filmmaking for an era, an inadvertent product of such an overtly male dominated system. That in the cold eyes of history, might one day warrant more passive judgement. But I don’t think we’re there yet.  

It’s clear that there is influence from the Hollywood new wave, the naïve romances in Warren Beatty's Bonnie and Clyde and Terrence Malick's Badlands come to mind, but whereas those films kicked down the door for future artists to tread, Breathless appears to bound into the room with less self-awareness and a shamelessly overt sexual swagger.
 
Breathless, Orion Pictures. 1983

 

There's a scene in the Godard version where Michel and Patricia sleep together, it’s so subtle it almost doesn’t happen. Michel has invited himself into Patricia’s apartment (something that is well translated in the American version), it is unsure whether his persistent seduction will pay off, but then there is a tonal shift. In a close up of Patricia’s face, sad piano notes play, she is shedding a tear, she is falling for Michel and she knows it. She folds a poster to look at him with tunnel vision, ‘I’ll stop staring at you until you stop staring at me.’ Michel agrees, the camera closes in on his mischievous face, then a cut to them embracing, they are not in the bedroom anymore, they are in the bathroom.

It happens but it doesn’t happen, it happens offscreen and in the subtext, and it happens while so much else is happening too. It's a beautiful example of the minimalist visual storytelling that the new wave auteurs were playing with. In this moment Michel’s gets what he wants, but by doing so he has sealed his fate, and from here there is nothing either he or Patricia can do to stop the inevitable.

There’s a scene in the American Breathless where Richard Gere rips open a shower door and proceeds to fuck Monica until the door falls off…

I mean, it’s not quite as hopeless as I make it out to be. It’s not completely out of character, and it’s actually pretty funny. Jesse (Gere) has had a crisis of love, and he overcomes it in his particular brand of macho American style. My error with this scene is that it is followed by an additional completely unnecessary sex scene of them on the bed. Why!? It adds nothing. He has just ripped off the shower door, done his Jerry Lee Lewis routine and declared his feelings. Job done, right? Whoever’s decision it was to follow that up with a slightly different shot of Valerie Kaprisky’s breasts, I don’t think had the film’s best artistic intentions at heart. This is just one example of the patent male agenda the film is made with.
 
 À Bout de Souffle, Films Impéria. 1960

 

But yet, with this criticism in mind, it must be said the remake had a lot more going for it than I expected.

The biggest thing I think the American version has going for is its heart.  

Despite how effortlessly cool Jean-Paul Belmondo is as Michel, hopping across Parisian streets and imitating Humphrey Bogart, for me Richard Gere’s Jesse is a much deeper character. His performance is completely over the top at points, and somehow, because of this he feels more real. To me he’s trying to be someone he’s not. He thinks he is some sort of Silver Surfer – Elvis hybrid, whether it’s intentional or not he’s completely believable as the naïve foolish dope he really is. Michel is almost symbolically cool, without much real emotion. Richard Gere is someone who thinks he’s cool but really just a foolish kid. And that is something I think a lot more people can relate to! They play the same role, but for me Gere’s performance is that bit more real.
 
For me the key differences in these films can be seen in how we refer to them. It’s not Belmondo, or Jean Seberg’s Breathless it’s Godard’s Breathless. In contrast the American version isn’t Jim McBride’s film, it’s The Richard Gere Breathless.

One thing this indicates is a differing appreciation of filmmaking. In Classic Hollywood we tend to think of Actors; James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart much more than say, Howard Hawks or Billy Wilder. In fact it’s only in retrospect that we have appreciation of these directors and their works as a whole. Auteur theory is of course born in the French New Wave by the likes of Truffaut and Godard.

Another reason for this description is that it reflects the strengths of each film. Godard - arguably Truffaut too - and the expression of a new style is what makes the original so great. You can sense the people behind the camera, you can feel the energy and creativity offscreen that is transmitted to each scene. It is a goodbye to boring of methods of filmmaking and lack of artistic expression. In the American version the directing is less obvious, less expressive, and more practical. For me, this version’s strength lies in its tragic hero, with his Americana nostalgia and life fast, die young attitude. The strength of this film is almost exclusively channelled through Gere’s performance.
 
I can't say I agree with those who prefer this remake, but I'm glad I watched it. I can see some things that are better despite so much that is not, and I guess that’s what cult movies do. The key for me as I watch more films is to look out for moments as well as the whole experience. You never know what will stick in your mind after you’ve seen it. For me, I will never forget the first time I saw A Bout De Soufflé, and equally that shower scene from the remake!
 
Breathless, Orion Pictures. 1983
Want to read more of my reviews?

I publish instant reaction reviews on letterboxd.com

The website and app is a great place to rate, rank, make lists of and discover exciting films. ratings are made from a community of film lovers, a bit like IMDB but more favoured towards art films and recent releases.

You can read my latest impressions of the Japanese anime Your Name. which you can currently watch on Netflix. 
 
Something to stream:

Your Name. Dir: Makoto Shinkai (2016) Where to watch: Netflix

This was such a rich and fullfilling cinematic experience on so many levels. So much attention to detail in both the day to day lives of the two main characters, and the stunning aesthetic vistas.

A visual feast from Shinkai is a given, but one with a great story behind it is a rarer delight. This one is a time traveling, body swap adventure about the painfully fleeting nature of dreams, yet the importance of holding on to what you know is of real importance.

Come for the hyper-realistic details of Japanese life, stay for the metaphysical mystery-romance. Would definitely recommend to anyone with an interest in the more complex anime narratives, yet probably still enjoyable where you to watch on mute and indulge in the stunning visuals!
 
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