In 1983, Richard Gere and Valeric Kaprisky starred in a silly movie named "Breathless." Gere plays a preening L.A. thief, Kaprisky an innocent French girl taking classes at UCLA. Gere chases her all lover town, panting, running fingers through his hair and humming Jerry Lee Lewis' "Breathless." Kaprisky, fascinated but frightened, puts him off with teasing, heavily accented English ("You're dizguzting," she simpers). Gere, of course, proves irresistible, and tragedy ensues. "Breathless" was supposed to feel gritty and clever, but it was mostly just boring.
Fortunately, this lame film didn't come out of nowhere. It was a remake of jean-Luc Godard's 1959 classic of the French New Wave, "Breathless (A Bout de souffle)," showing at the Brattle on Sunday. Although the original lacks the tunes of Jerry Lee Lewis, it succeeds everywhere the remake fails. The 1959 "Breathless" is film noir with a capital N, dark and deliciously scary.
The nationalities here are the opposite of those in the remake: Jean-Paul Belmon-do plays Michel Poiccard, the sleazy but charming cop-killing Frenchman, and Jean Seberg the fresh-faced American girl, Patricia, who's taking classes at the Sorbonne.
Michel and Patricia are Beautiful People who look like they're straight out of some 1930s romantic epic film. Disconcertingly, they're both conscious of this. Michel sports a fedora and a permanent grimace and smokes cigarettes like they're going out of style; he also gazes admiringly at pictures of Bogart and emulates the screen idol's swagger. Belmondo perfectly conveys the desperation of this character who looks and thinks like a big-time gangster nut is really just a two-bit crook.
Seberg too creates a slightly off-kilter heroine. With her cherubic looks and clumsy accented French, she fits the part of the ingenue, but there's a hard, selfish edge to her character that makes this innocence seem more than a little put on. She keeps checking her fetching looks in mirrors.
And even though this picture flirts with the Golden Era romantic tradition, Hollywood's never produced anything so openly obsessed with sex and death. Michel and Patrician's romantic banter is funny and a little cruel--many shades darker than the chit-chat in "Casablanca." He keeps grabbing her butt; she keeps slapping his face. She talks art; he talks sex. A sample exchange:
She. Do You like William Faulkner? He. Who's that, someone you slept with? She No, he's a famous American author, he wrote beautifully. Listen. "Between grief and nothing, I will take grief." What do you think? He. show me your toes.
They play out this bizarre affair against a stunningly filmed Parisian backdrop. Godard's experimental film techniques still dazzle 30 years later. Through his camera, the city becomes a dizzying, constantly moving dance of light and shadow. Amazing visual moments abound: he first breathtaking glimpse of Seberg moving blithely down the center of a Paris boulevard, an exhilarating view of the city from the air, the famous closing scene where a back alley is transformed into an infernal stretching corridor. The jazz soundtrack provides striking accompaniment to these images.
This technical brilliance combines with excellent performances to make "Breathless" a seductive portrait of people with glamorous outsides and messed-up, fairly desperate insides. It's as if you were to get right up close to the blissful couple in Robert Doisneau's photograph "The Kiss"--and discover that he's twisting her arm. It's a beautiful, terrifying experience.