True Romantics and the Fantasy of Reality: on Breathless (McBride, 1983)

Gere’s gangster, all comic books, rock n’ roll, and pelvic thrust, lives as a fugitive from the fantasy that is the world, because only he can see it for real.

Godard said À bout de souffle was about a man who thinks about death and a woman who doesn’t, and it’s in this dictum where McBride retains the greatest loyalty to the original, because to think about death is to think about life. And this film and its protagonist are full of life, too much life to be contained.The narrative progresses because it must, the road only leads one direction, it carries its own propulsion so McBride has to mind it very little, leaving him free to structure his scenes as wild movements between poles of emotions in the extreme. It’s all or nothing for Jesse. Whenever he veers too close to death, he responds with a severe break in “reality” or rather, these recognitions of death closing in are the break in his reality, and he must respond by returning to his reality with grander force than that which wrested it from him. Caught in a trap between the ecstasies of love and the pull of fate.

The lesson of David Holzman’s Diary (Breathless was co-written by LM Kit Carson, that film’s star) was that cinema must always, necessarily by its very nature, turn its subject into object. McBride was smart to identify the disturbing confluence of this cinematic process with misogyny, and certainly that’s just as much what Holzman’s Diary is about as it is about philosophical ideas of subject and object. Here, Jesse does this to Monica with his oppressive idolatry of her, of the idea of their love.

He arrives to a deserted Los Angeles, a megalopolis devoid of life until he finds her.

McBride is aware and critical of this position and Jesse’s often pornographic notions of their love aren’t accidental (and Gere, too, does his part, see him climbing down a vine making monkey noises). They perhaps gain a stronger critical tension when one recalls the answer to a question posed to Melville in À bout de souffle, “Eroticism is a form of love, and vice versa.” But I think one of the greatest strengths of the film is Valerie Kaprisky’s performance as Monica, and the slow yet deliberate way she indulges in Jesse’s reality. She engages with much agency, always in control, always keenly aware of the dangers and the thrills those dangers offer. But she remembers the future.

Ultimately, she knows she can’t live in the fantasy forever, but she allows herself a temporary escape. They both marvel at the sunset.

Once Monica has committed to this indulgence, almost everything about their Los Angeles becomes a fabrication. New buildings under construction, a junkyard of unused cars. Instead of horizons in the distance, murals on every wall. Life lived behind the movies.

And in the end, after spending the night on the grounds of a dead movie star’s mansion, spotlights lighting up Hollywood just for them…

…the realities prove too incompatible. A rupture must occur. Jesse croons Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Breathless” over the Philip Glass piano piece (that has come to stand in for Martial Solal’s famous “New York Herald Tribune” track from À bout de souffle). Two realities, two poles of emotion caught in disharmony, a Godardian collision of asynchronous sound, an impossible tension. McBride immortalizes Jesse in a freeze frame ending (I gasped), caught between all or nothing, living this pursuit into infinity.

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