You Americans, You Only Think About Sex

Breathless (1983)

Richard Gere in Breathless (1983) | art by Tony Stella
illustration by Tony Stella

 

 

Eyes glisten in the dark, reflecting the light of the bodies on the screen.

“I wanna do a little living…Ever since I can remember. And if I don’t get it one way, I’ll get it the other.”

Rows of wet, wide eyes watch a monochrome woman tell a monochrome man what she wants as they both flicker at 24 frames per second, circling one another as they settle into their seedy new motel bedroom, drawn slowly like celestial bodies to the bed’s event horizon, a rumpled and fuckbent brass vortex of their unspoken and Hays Coded but still-ravenous need. 

“I told you I was no good. I didn’t kid you, did I? Well now you know…I’ve been kicked around all my life, and from now on, I’m gonna start kicking back.”

The couple’s sexually-charged argument echoes throughout the theater, trapping the viewers with lip-bit lust just as the projected man is baited and caught by the libidinous, heavy-lidded taunting of the projected woman, who is naked save for a bathrobe and the black sheer stockings she leisurely rolls past her toes, up the curve of her calves, to the swell of her thighs like a twinned nylon eclipse of her bright white lunar skin. 

“When are you going to begin to live?”

Look into the eyes of the audience, moviegoers seeking solace from the heat-rippled and windblown Los Angeles night, and see images from the film reflected back in pair after pair, shining the insatiable lust of 1950’s lovers-on-the-run flick Gun Crazy back at itself in the throb of a lascivious, ever-growing feedback loop—the film eliciting a sensuous, tongue-thickening thirst in its audience, and the audience using that thirst to give a shape to their own erotic needs and fantasies. The unreal giving meaning to the real, and then the real flooding back to the unreal with an exponentially more explosive thirst, the audience projecting their heightened lust back at the screen, trapping both in a kind of simulacra as aphrodisia.

Breathless (1983) | Orion Pictures
Orion Pictures

“I want things. A lot of things. Big things.”

The audience is so entranced that they ignore the noisy, heat-slicked LAPD officer who bursts into the theater, searching the crowd. So entranced are they by the barely-contained carnality oozing from the screen that perhaps they also miss what is happening beneath its surface—that the film is more than just a roughshod ‘50s b-movie meant to engender a riot of backseat drive-in fucks 33 years prior; rather, the film is a penetrating exploration of violent obsession and sexuality, all hidden beneath the run-and-gun gloss of a frenzied crime noir. And just as the audience may be unaware of the thematic undertow subversively roiling beneath the film’s surface, so too is the harried beat cop unaware of what is happening behind the surface of that screen. 

“I don’t wanna be afraid of life or anything else. I want a guy with spirit and guts. A guy who can laugh at anything, who’ll do anything. A guy who can kick over the traces and win the world for me.”

“I don’t wanna be afraid of life or anything else,” echoes Monica Poiccard (Valérie Kaprisky) back to the screen in a thick, French-accented whisper as she straddles her lover, the Silver Surfer-obsessed car thief Jesse Lujack (Richard Gere). On the run from an LAPD manhunt targeting Jesse for murder, they’ve stumbled into the theater’s backstage, a dark, dusky room illuminated by a single red bulb and the projected light of Gun Crazy shining through the backside of the screen and playing mirror-flipped for an audience of just these two. As the femme fatale onscreen ensnares her man and the crowd with her hungry taunts, Monica’s dress falls from her breasts and Jesse sighs the sigh of the damned, enraptured. Their bodies are framed in profile by the larger than life black and white figures behind them, creating a mirrored series of lovers on the run—one colorless and arousing two sets of audiences on either side of the gaudy theater’s screen, the other swathed in sultry red light and arousing two sets of audiences on either side of the screen that contains them: Jesse and Monica on one side, we on the other. Monica’s hair then falls around Jesse’s face like a cage as she lowers to suck his tongue, his neck, and the tattoo of a broken heart on his chest. 

“You better kiss me goodbye, Bart. Because I won’t be here when you get back. Come on, Bart. Let’s finish it the way we started it.”

 As the music of Gun Crazy swells to a salacious peak and its criminal couple falls out of focus and into bed, Jesse and Monica enact the desires of the characters on the theater’s screen, of the theater’s audience, of their own, of ours, and slowly, passionately fuck. No, not just fuck—for the first time, these two engage in a kind of sex even more cataclysmic than their prior couplings of apocalyptic, shower-shattering sex. Jesse’s unceasing chatterbox pop nihilism fades to an intense, dreamy silence for the first time, and Monica’s often expressionless, Nagel-blank face contorts with smoldering bliss. “Open your eyes,” Jesse whispers, and Monica stares back at him with a bloodrushed intensity. Illuminated by the woozy mix of the present’s garish red light and the flickering black and white of the pop culture past, they see one another reflected in each other’s eyes, that feedback loop of projection and audience, dizzyingly mirroring what is happening on both sides of the screens that trap them—the theater’s screen behind them that shapes their fantasies and fates, and the screen we watch them forever encased within, the one we watch those fantasies and fates play out upon.

This is 1983’s Breathless in a wild, metafilmic microcosm: Jesse and Monica having sex to the backdrop of 1950’s gloriously lusty Gun Crazy, the kind of lovers-on-the-run American b-movie that inspired Jean-Luc Godard and co-writer François Truffaut to make 1960’s French New Wave crime classic À bout de souffle, a film which in turn Jesse and Monica are living within the 1983 remake of. In this sequence, Breathless director Jim McBride constructed the vertiginous visual metaphor that defines his film, in which the perpetually pop-obsessed Jesse finally gets to live within the cinematic bad boy fantasies he’s spent his life watching, and will lose his life experiencing. A lewd and hipgripped celebration/study of cinematic artifice studded with popcult references and visual quotes, Breathless is at once a ferociously horny and formally audacious remake of Godard’s hyper-referential film, as well as an all-or-nothing, frenetically American and self-aware meditation on desperately empty people lost in the thrall of the pop culture that gives form to their wants and needs. Using sex and flash to trap our attention, Breathless is about what we watch, what gets us off, and why, while simultaneously and feverishly working overtime to make us watch, and to get us off.

 

 

A pair of eyes, hooded beneath a pompadour hairdo, peek over the top of the wrinkled Silver Surfer #1: The Origin of the Silver Surfer! that they’ve been greedily scouring. 

“In all the galaxies, in all the endless reaches of space, I have found no planet more blessed than this one.”

Breathless opens with Jesse loitering the Las Vegas strip and reading his favorite comic, using the book to hide his face as he eyes the sleek Porsche coupé that purred into a nearby lot just minutes before, the luminous silver shine of its paint job reflecting the napalm-red Vegas sunset the same way his hero’s metal skin shimmers in the spaceways of the Power Cosmic. Like his predecessor Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) in À bout de souffle, Jesse is a pop culture-possessed thug looking to score a free set of wheels to reach Los Angeles (Paris in the original), pick up a massive payoff for an illegal job he recently pulled, reconnect with a woman he loves, and then lam it with her to Mexico and live out their days in paradise. Whereas Michel was fixated on elevating his crude nature by emulating the then-avatar of American cool, Humphrey Bogart, Jesse is hypnotized by the Silver Surfer and rockabilly madman Jerry Lee Lewis, fusing a hypersexed mixture of the sky-riding stranger’s pop-Shakespearean mythos and the boogie-woogie Sun Records cool of the rock ‘n’ roll pianist known as “The Killer” into a Narcissus-pooled self-image. 

“And yet, in its uncontrollable insanity, the human race seeks to destroy this shining jewel, this blessed sphere, which men call Earth.”

In À bout de souffle, Michel was a French man obsessed with an American woman, a literalization of his obsession with America. In Breathless, as an American, Jesse invests himself with that near-superhuman focus. Gere crafts a manic and cockswaggered performance in which Jesse self-consciously infuses his own profound spiritual emptiness with a hotshot overload of American hipkitsch culture, a plaidpants and junkdrawered outlaw persona that gives his emptiness form but is so self-centered that he cannot see beyond it. Shaping himself with the cultural figures that give his gig-to-gig life and superficial inner world meaning, his use of pop is—like his comic book—a kind of camouflage he can spy upon the world from behind, and an impervious shielding to alloy himself à la the Surfer with his silver skin. But it is also a prison—that which attracts him, that which he uses to self-articulate and quiet his rawboned loneliness, is also a sexy, shiny trap that ensures choices and behaviors that will lead inexorably to a violent fate.

“And trapped upon this world of madness stand I, the Silver Surfer!”

Those more familiar with the blink-y and silver-foxed easy digestibility of Gere’s restrained post-Pretty Woman career are likely in for a body-thrilling shock upon viewing Breathless for the first time—as Jesse, Gere delivers a (literal and figurative) full-frontal assault, a shockingly carnal display of livewire, animalistic magnetism and vulgar, motormouthed come-ons. Constantly narrating his story to himself in a breathy, hepcat chuckle —what he’s done, what he’s doing, what he will do—like a comic book’s narrative text box accented with pussyhound fervor and slurred with pop references, Gere’s Jesse is not just the heart of the film, he is the film. He creates and radiates Breathless’ aesthetic as he creates himself, so much so that there is no telling where he ends and the film begins. After he steals the Porsche, we watch as Jesse roars down a highway, scream-singing in unison to a cassette of Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Breathless” for the song’s entirety, a slick music video of mugging and yowling like an adrenalized cross between Bruce Springsteen and Charles Manson, and as he does so the intentionally heightened artificiality of his performance bleeds into the film. Location footage of the silver Porsche surfing the highway shifts to extraordinarily obvious rear-projection shots—Jesse is literally driving through a movie, as if this is the projection of his fantasy onto reality, a dangerous intersection of real and unreal that is concretized by his discovery of a handgun in the glove department, a very real pistol he lays across the fantasy pages of his Surfer comic.

Breathless (1983) | Orion Pictures

“Though infinity beckons, I must leave behind my very heart.”

In the original film, Michel’s high-speed burn towards Paris attracts the attention of a cop whom he casually, cowardly shoots dead. In Breathless, Jesse’s music video fantasia earns him a chase with a highway patrolman, and when Jesse wrecks the Porsche and grabs the gun to flee, its hair trigger goes off and inadvertently kills the officer. The difference is crucial—Michel is a coldblooded killer with a Bogart hard-on who makes a despicable choice; Jesse is a wanderlusting, semi-tragic fool whose pop fantasies have trapped him in an existentialist scenario he cannot escape, like a surf-rocked version of Camus’ The Stranger. His arrival in LA only enmeshes him further in that existential scenario, as the city of dreams becomes an absurdist nightmare from which he cannot escape. His expected payday comes in the form of a life-changing check that’s impossible for him to cash as long as the LAPD is scouring the city for him. Paradoxically, as long as he remains in LA, he prevents his own ability to cash-out of LA. All he can do is scurry penniless back to Vegas, or madly cling to the one part of his fantasy in Los Angeles that might still give him meaning.

“Never has there been, never will there be another such as you.”

Amidst the eye-blistering primary colors, neon skyways, and pastel art-deco of Breathless’ comic book Los Angeles, Jesse hunts for Monica, the woman with whom he once shared a brief Vegas fling. To her, he was a wild lost weekend; to Jesse, in his fantasy, she has become the architect of his salvation. In his desperation to claim her as part of his pop-outlaw mythos, he pursues her with all manner of ‘80s rom-com misogyny and heinousness: breaking into her apartment when she’s gone, sifting through her underwear drawer, crashing her crucial architecture presentation, chasing her amidst the twisted iron bodies of UCLA’s Murphy Sculpture Garden and stalking her beneath the ominous postmodern pastiche that is the Westin Bonaventure Hotel, even robbing a purse-thief in a Mexican dive-bar and awarding Monica with a stolen cheap plastic heart necklace that blinks blood-red (“That’s my heart, don’t break it”). Unlike Michel’s lackadaisical pursuit of Patricia (Jean Seberg) in À bout de souffle, Jesse shifts his entire Hero’s Journey from escaping LA to “saving” Monica, trying to justify himself to her by recounting the mythology of the Silver Surfer, a tragic hero who saves his home planet from an alien threat in exchange for becoming a metal-skinned, cosmos-spanning herald for evil. “He’s a space-lost freak lookin’ for love…He’s got this problem with his girlfriend, they’re trapped on two different galaxies.” Monica can only casually respond that the Surfer’s story is sad, before closing her eyes to Jesse’s madness in an attempt to blot him out. 

“Say no more! It cannot be! It can never be! Where soars the Silver Surfer, there must he soar alone.”

 So blinded is he by his new and self-imposed story arc of winning over Monica that the typically streetwise Jesse cannot see the existential noose his obsession is threading as the LAPD closes in, even when he hearts the faulty logic of the Surfer saga mercilessly mocked by a teen skateboard punk at a newsstand:

He’s crazy! He could get away any time he wants, he’s got the Power Cosmic…They’re always after him, the cops and the marines…The Surfer’s nuts to hang around! He knows life on Earth has no meaning! It’s chaos! It’s out of control! He’s got a chance to break away!

Jesse, now trapped in servitude to his sex-mad, self-made odyssey, esponds by sadly, silently walking back to Monica’s empty apartment in the middle of the night, waiting for her to return.

 

 

Monica eyes Jesse warily through fury-slit eyelids, their bodies floating at opposite ends of her apartment’s pool, the water a shimmery turquoise that dyes its reflection of the cold grey LA sky a chlorinated blue fit for Jesse’s comic-paneled daydreams.

“If you love me please don’t tease/If I can hold then let me squeeze/My heart goes round and round/ My love comes a tumblin’ down—”

They circle the pool, watching each other: Jesse’s ego and dreamworld bruised with the knowledge she slept with another, wealthier, more successful man the night before, Monica’s temper flared at his intense jealousy and reemergence in her life. Yet even through her anger, her eyes flash with lust as Jesse glides through the water, all sinewed muscle and rebel-cool, as much a thirst trap for her as she is for him, a raucous blast of orgasmic freedom in her well-mannered life.

“Oh I shake all over honey, you know why/I am sure, love, honey, it ain’t no lie/’Cause when you call my name/You know, honey, I burn like a wooden flame—“ 

As the quasi-femme fatale in À bout de souffle, Jean acted in part as the metaphor for Michel’s obsession with American culture. With Jesse as the walking-talking investiture of American pop culture in Breathless, Monica is left drained of the original character’s meaning. And while McBride and L.M. Kit Carson’s (Paris, Texas; The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2) script infuses Monica with a pained interiority that Jean lacked, viewers of Breathless will note that Valérie Kaprisky gives an…odd performance as Monica, in that English seems not to be the actress’s first, second, third, fourth, or fifth language, and there are times one suspects she is not even entirely sure of the meaning behind her line-readings. 

And yet! While many of the film’s detractors have targeted Kaprisky as the personification of all that is wrong in the remake—startlingly attractive, yet devoid of artistic import—the eerie emptiness she provides Monica, coupled with the meaning of the original character that Jesse robs from her, inadvertently gives Monica an almost thematically necessary blankness. Kaprisky’s earnestly hollow performance meshes with the film’s aesthetic of hyper-artifice and renders Monica as the kind of blank screen that would of course attract a man like Jesse. She’s something he can project his fantasies and inner movie upon. In her strange, sexually supercharged yet vapid way, she is the only person capable of trapping the obsessive, off-kilter lust of a man like him.

“Honey you’re much too much/You know I can’t love you enough—“

And yet it is that same vapidity that Monica is able to sense within Jesse, beneath his vibrant hipster costumes and rockabilly crooning. Circling him in the pool, she recognizes the emptiness lurking beneath his slick surface, a kind of black hole within him, endlessly consuming the pop narratives that drive him to the edge. But it is in that same black hole that she becomes lost, and he consumes her with a whirlpool of promises for their life in Mexico, promises constructed from stories he picks and chooses out of songs and films, trapping her with them. 

Breathless (1983) | Orion Pictures

“Well, it’s alright to hold me tight—”

And it’s through those pop narratives that Jesse makes his final push for Monica. After discovering Monica has been fucking another man, after seeing his own pixelated face on a news broadcast about the LAPD manhunt, after he’s unable to perform sexually with Monica when she finally responds to his swimming pool charms, he sits curled in her apartment, muttering to himself as she showers. Suddenly, he stands erect and sweating, the muscles in his body twitching, his hips thrusting, whispering to himself: “…Caught in a trap…I can’t get out…” As the lyrics to Elvis’ “Suspicious Minds” slip from his lips, he squeezes his eyes shut tight against reality, getting louder with each line, thrusting harder, energizing himself, willing himself to get hard with the Power Cosmic, the Power Presley, as if he is transmogrifying his body just as his sleek and surfing hero once did. Make no mistake, this is a film in which a man electrifies himself into getting an erection via pop music. And as he howls the lyrics, he wills the film itself into his world, with Elvis’ song taking over the film’s soundtrack and drowning out all else, just as it does for Jesse. Throwing open the bathroom door, he embraces Monica in the shower, and the two begin to have sex powerful enough to shatter her shower doors.

“But when you love me love me riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight—”

 As in the backstage theater lovemaking to come, Breathless’ sex scenes fold the film’s meanings, aesthetic fixations, and character motivations into sticky, body-slapping setpieces that blur the lines separating reality from cinema and art from artifice, peopled with lovers as fixated on vinyl 45s and comic books and classic films as they are the volcanic sex they’re locked within. These sequences locate and replicate the strange intercourse between art and audience, our compulsive need to know ourselves by what we watch, what we hear, what turns us on. That Möbius film strip in which our fantasies are enacted on screens that then give further shape to even deeper, more inarticulate needs, that endless loop of thirst and desire, real and unreal feeding on one another, forming our self-definitions, and within those quickening rhythms, McBride—like Goddard before him—essentially created a new filmmaking vocabulary, prefiguring the pop-addled, video-stored filmographies of artists like Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Michel Gondry. 

“Oh come on baby now don’t be shy this love was meant for you and I—” 

And between the film’s two major sex scenes lies a Pop Art LA travelogue as Breathless mutates into an extended chase sequence, with all the consequences of Jesse’s fantasy life careening towards the lovers on the run, collapsing their now-shared dream of living a Lewis-soundtracked Gun Crazy life. Everywhere they hide, the tissue of their delusions are torn by the almost metaphysically ever-present LAPD officers, from the hyperreal uncanny valley of Venice Beach murals to the underground New Wave dance clubs to the movie theaters all the way, finally, to The Pines. Once the Hollywood Hills estate of Errol Flynn (“crazy fucker and movie star,” Jesse notes approvingly), it’s now a rotted ruin above the city, latticed with a trellis of endless graffiti and populated by punks playing Star Wars with lit fluorescent tubes in its abandoned tennis courts. To see The Pines is like viewing Jesse’s inner world from the outside, a dangerous and unstable playhouse castle built from decaying Hollywood lore, and Monica is left haunted. And in the film’s climax, Breathless raises its eyes to meet À bout de souffle’s, and in their gaze is the reflection of the other, as both film’s final minutes unfold the same way: A disenchanted woman calls the police and gives away the location of her cop-killing fugitive lover.  

“Wind, rain, sleet. or snow I’m gonna get you baby wherever you go—” 

And then Breathless looks away from the original, from the past, one last time. In À bout de souffle, Michel is desultory and resigns himself to prison, to police, to the death they give him with a bullet in the back. But Breathless, in its last seconds, with its last breath, adds one final metafilmic hipthrust forward: As police surround Jesse, and Monica cries and begs for him to surrender, Jesse smiles and begins to pound his hands in the air. As he does, the sounds of a familiar barrelhouse piano erupt from the sky and Jesse begins whispering his rockabilly battle cry: “Now if you love me please don’t tease…If I can hold then let me squeeeeeze…” As his body twitches with the Power Cosmic, Jesse dances with his back to the cops, performing for his audience of one, Monica, wrenching his inner fantasy into the world one more time. The throb of the lascivious, ever-growing feedback loop between audience and performer, between viewer and screen, between the thirst and its trap, swells between them…and then the song dwindles to silence as reality takes hold, and all that is left is Jesse’s a capella jitterbugging before he whips around to point his gun at the cops. There is a brutal fade to black, and a riproaring cover of The Killer’s “Breathless” by LA punk band X, which, like the film it soundtracks, builds upon and betters the original with its gnashing carnal frenzy.

“And you—”

Woefully dismissed upon release as a crassly comic book and pornographically pop remake of an untouchable cornerstone of world cinema, Breathless is a misunderstood miracle, a simply (pardon) breathtaking Pop Art masterpiece of sex and culture that surpasses the original not only in intricacy and thematic density, but in perfection. 

 “—you leave meeeee—“

So hyperkinetic is its strange and remade makeup that its very atoms seem to vibrate at a faster speed than the original, and instead of À bout de souffle’s somewhat distant, cold, and studied look at American postwar culture, McBride’s Wurlitzer-soundtracked remake is knee-deep in it, swims in it, fucks in it. Deliriously stacking itself upon the original in a way that creates a neverending hall of cinematic mirrors, there is a dazzling level of complexity at play in the remake that Goddard’s, by nature, cannot achieve. In keeping with its own basic-cable Baudrillard aesthetic, Breathless is the copy that outstrips the original in its perfection because it is a copy, the unreal giving meaning to the real, the audience that projects its heightened lust back at the screen, the thirst that traps our gaze and leaves us— 

“—brrrrrrrrrrrrrreathless-AH!”