Jim McBride's Breathless has a bad reputation. The 1983 variation on Jean-Luc Godard's paradigm-changing debut feature — transplanted from Paris to the scuzzy streets of L.A., with Jean-Paul Belmondo's and Jean Seberg's doomed lovers Michel and Patricia switched out for Richard Gere's American car thief, Jesse, and his French student paramour Monica, played by soft-core starlet Valerie Kaprisky — was the remake nobody wanted or needed. But watched outside of the considerable shadow cast by Godard's film, McBride's Breathless is an infectiously lurid blast — not so-bad-it's-good, just good.
Like Paul Schrader's American Gigolo (which precedes McBride's film in Cinefamily's "Neon Noir" double feature Friday), Breathless is a study of Richard Gere's body, but while he's frequently, inappropriately bare-chested and preening, Jesse's narcissism has a repellent edge. If Belmondo's coolness overrode his unconventional features to turn him into a sex symbol, this Breathless works the reverse trick on hunk-pinup Gere, undercutting his inherent magnetism with a very uncool hyperactivity, complicating his appeal.
"I don't want to love you!" Kaprisky wails helplessly, just before her Santa Ana–swept lost weekend with Gere's on-the-lam punk comes to its only possible conclusion. It's basically a hysterical gender flip of Belmondo's last line before Michel is shot: "I shouldn't be thinking of her, but I can't help it."
The script, co-written by McBride and his David Holzman's Diary star L.M. Kit Carson, takes other notable detours from the template laid out by Godard and his screenwriter, Francois Truffaut. Godard's Breathless wore its Hollywood inspirations openly; McBride and Carson go back to the pulp sources (Gun Crazy is featured prominently), and then go more pop. Where Michel was self-consciously patterned after Bogart, Gere's Jesse — outfitted in '50s-nostalgic '80s gear so garish that one of his criminal cronies begs to lend him a blazer as camouflage — worships Jerry Lee Lewis and takes cues from the Silver Surfer.
As does McBride, whose style here might best be described as comic book noir. Quentin Tarantino loves it, natch: From the Link Wray–heavy soundtrack to the rear-projection car scenes to the location shoot in a junkyard, you can create a drinking game out of spotting the Pulp Fiction inspirations. (Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre, Fri., Nov. 12, 7:30 p.m.)
Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes