Sex is something that critics tend to turn up their noses at when it rears its ugly head; they fall over themselves to assure their readers that , of course, they don’t find any of this sexy at all. But back in the late 70’s, early 80’s, conveying some sense of erotic fervour was part of what was expected from a big movie, and Jim McBride’s Breathless, a vehicle for Richard Gere made it their main selling point .
Gere had been a rising star since American Gigolo, and was certainly a guy who men wanted to be and women wanted to…see in a big movie. Breathless casts him as Jesse Lujack, a car thief obsessed by comic books, namely The Silver Surfer. He’s also something of a ladies man, and fastens onto student Monica (Valerie Kaprisky), whose life is turned upside down when Jesse shakes up one of her college meetings. He’s just accidentally killed a cop after a desert car chase, and it’s only a matter of time before the law catches up. So every moment the couple have is stolen, and they fill the void with some heavy petting and outright canoodling before the inevitable tragic finale.
Taking inspiration from Godard’s film of the same name, McBride adds a few flourishes of his own, and not all of them work; speeded up film in the opening car chase is regrettable, as are the, presumably deliberate, poorly-processed back-projection when Jesse and Monica take off in whatever car he’s just grifted. And the music, largely Jerry Lee Lewis, has a retro feel that doesn’t feel right for a film that also features lightsabre fights and The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy; one chase takes place to Message of Love by The Pretenders, and the music doesn’t fit the action at all. And Jessie’s checked-pattern trousers are truly horrific, Rupert the Bear strides that would disgrace Fuzzy Zoeller on a casual day at the golf course.
But where Breathless excels is the portrayal of sex; Jesse and Monica play games with each other, and their first on-camera coupling seems to take an eternity to arrive. But when it does, things kick off with nuclear force, and the scene in which Jesse, erm, presents himself to her in the shower to Elvis’ Suspicious Minds is one of the erotic highpoints of cinema. Brooding, moody, but not above capturing moments of joy, Breathless deserves its new cult reputation, if only for depicting the act of love as an enjoyable thing between similarly minded people.