Monday, November 29, 2010
Jim McBride's BREATHLESS
French iconoclast/legend/pain-in-the-ass Jean-Luc Godard once said, "I make films to make time pass." While he probably meant it in the way I'm about to put it, I think Jim McBride, who in 1983 co-wrote and directed a remake of Godard's seminal 1960 debut film A bout de souffle, made such a film - a film that makes time pass kind of cool, kind of dull, not too much to make us rattled but nothing that leaves us too angry. This is a Breathless for the 80's, after all, albeit with an (no-shit-sherlock)anti-hero who loves rockabilly (specifically Jerry Lee Lewis, goodness gracious) and Silver Surfer, and so there's slicker filmmaking, some slicker music, and more sex and a little more violence than one saw back in 1960. And, as remakes tend to go, less innovation and originality.
But hey, what was Breathless than an homage to old gangster pictures- it's dedicated to Monogram Pictures, who put out the cheapest B-movies imaginable- so why not make another homage to it by way of a remake. McBride wants to be faithful to his source(s) to be sure, as there is a loving but blatant scene where the two young lovers hide from the cops behind a screen at a movie theater that just so happens to be playing the 1948 Joseph H. Lewis classic Gun Crazy. Indeed this was one of the movies that inspired the original Breathless. Silver Surfer, sadly, couldn't have made much of an impact on Godard as the character wasn't invented till later (though Godard was a fan of Marvel Comics, all that I digress).
So why make this movie? Does it have much of a purpose to exist? It exists, therefore it is, and it's meant to appeal to two camps: 'average' movie-goers looking for an erotic thriller, or the encyclopedic-knowledgeable on movies (such as Quentin Tarantino, who in his sometimes not-so-infinite movie wisdom puts this way above the Godard film, can't imagine why with rockabilly and comic books and sex and violence and... nevermind). I can't really speak to how much the film appeals on the first level, since it's only intermittently thrilling and while erotic only so on a superficial level as they are two good looking people (Kaprisky is there as eye candy if nothing else) who get to fuck a bit on camera. As for the movie buff angle... eh.
The thrilling and powerful thing about Godard's film was that it was an innovative picture and was genuinely cool about itself while sticking to its homage-roots. It's not meant to be perfect by any stretch, but it's a very fun movie that holds up after fifty years. McBride's film, however, hasn't aged quite well, despite some of its music being timeless (hey, The Pretenders pop up at one point!) and a couple of enjoyable chase scenes. I may have neglected to mention the plot, but it's always so thin in either version: a young punk steals a car, shoots a cop (by accident or intentional, intentional accident?), and wants to run away with his girlfriend to another country to escape the Fuzz. What fills up this plot? Attitude, baby, attitude.
I wish I could stop comparing, but it's tough to do; McBride doesn't quite attract attention the way that, say, Gus van Sant did with his remake of Psycho. It's not a shot-by-shot remake per-say, although most of the scenes from the original are here to a T. But the tone has a kind of smug hipness that even Godard didn't quite have as he was still a fresh-faced filmmaker cutting his teeth on jump cuts. Without much innovation and more of a heavy-hand of the symbolism of Silver Surfer (there's actually a fucking scene where a kid points out to Jesse why the Surfer sucks, and the whole conversation and semi-lecturing turns into self-commentary, only it's the annoying kind that makes me thirst for 90's hipsters), it has to rely on the mechanics of its story, which is told fairly simply.
Basically if you strip away the cool of A bout de souffle what you have left is just a basic thriller, only McBride is much more in love with stealing cars (I counted about six or seven in the film, maybe there's more), his rockabilly tunes, and the charisma he can only hope his two leads spark on the screen. Luckily Gere is game, in a performance that is enjoyable on a completely shallow level. He could play this character in his sleep, which should perhaps be a compliment. He's a louse, a jerk, and not too many people like him (certainly those that see his face in the paper), and Gere makes it his vehicle by just sticking to how rude and crude but oh-so-"cool" he can make Jesse be. While I might still prefer Belmondo for a more innocent way about his assholishness, it's nice to see Gere make the role his own, and at the least I wasn't too bored with him in scenes even if the direction and writing could get dull.
No, the really big gaping misstep here is the casing of Valerie Kaprisky. Did McBride even hold an audition for this one? According to IMDb Natassja Kinski was up for the role, and yet somehow she lost to an actress as this French student is so bland and affectless, so lost in what she's doing. Sure, her body looks great, and is nice to watch in a bathing suit or all wet from being out of the shower, but what else is there? Nothing, really. She could have worked as a blank slate in another role, but here she has to be on top of it, as interesting to watch fully clothed as not. Jean Seberg had a genuine sexy quality, but she could hold her own- nay, do even better sometimes- than her male counterpart. Kaprisky perhaps fares better when she can speak her own language. In English, she's got bad timing, awful reactions, can't say anything with conviction, and when she has to emote (i.e. the big climax, much more melodramatic than one could imagine possible) it's cringe-inducing.
It's not to say she brings down the movie single-handedly, and she doesn't. What makes it just a simple, slight remake is that its attitude and cool is so surface as to feel distant from the audience. No jump cuts, no hand-held photography. Nothing really feels all that urgent. It's like a synthetic mix of all of those lovers-on-the-run movies with less logic and less real POW in its style, save for a few moments of action and suspense.
Is it better to have grief or nothing? How about Good-Grief?