Jesse (Richard Gere) is a young petty thief who dreams of escaping to Mexico with a lot of money he is owed, but there's one thing missing and that's some female company. He steals a vintage car from outside a nightclub and speeds off into the Las Vegas night, pausing briefly to cheekily say goodbye to a prostitute who wants to come with him. Once on the desert highway, he puts Jerry Lee Lewis on the car's stereo and sings along as the red sky turns black above him, but then makes the mistake of showing off to a vehicle full of women which attracts the attention of the police. He tries to avoid them, but ends up crashing and accidentally shooting the cop arresting him...
With Jesse a wanted man from the first five minutes of the film, and being aware this Breathless was inspired by Jean-Luc Godard's classic French New Wave production A Bout de Souffle, you know things are not going to turn out exactly great for him, but everything in the presentation tells you otherwise. Jesse is having a great time enjoying the glamour of being a fugitive from the law, and although he has moments of looking worried and putting his head in his hands, it's quite clear we're in the province of fun loving criminals here.
Where in the Godard film the foreigner, Jean Seberg, was the shallow one, here it's Jesse who lacks depth and his student girlfriend Monica (Valérie Kaprisky) who is the sensible one, and dare I say it she outdoes her screen partner in the coolness stakes. This is because Gere goes into acting overdrive as you can practically see the sweat flying off him in his Herculean efforts to be the hippest character in eighties cinema. Needless to say, he comes across as preening, obnoxious and more in love with himself than any woman could ever be which makes his constant posing (get this man a photo shoot now!) hard to take.
Especially as it goes on for over an hour and a half. Adapting the François Truffaut story, director Jim McBride and co-writer L.M. Kit Carson (who starred in McBride's equally groundbreaking David Holzman's Diary) try their darnedest to make this film as iconic for their decade as the original was for the sixties. With its bright Los Angeles streets and two attractive stars in states of undress (making this a late night favourite on television) they certainly got the look of the drama right, but their mythmaking only goes so far - it's fitting that they can only go as far as comparing Jesse to pop culture ephemera like the comic book Silver Surfer.
When Gere is not being annoying, you can enjoy the incidental pleasures that McBride brings. It could be the extensive use of back projection for the shots when Jesse and Monica are in one of the many cars Jesse steals which lends it a consciously artificial look, or it could be something as simple as Kaprisky dancing away to Dexys Midnight Runners in a club, the gloss and sparkle Breathless has go some way to keeping it compelling. And it was nice to see a film that went out of its way to highlight the lovers just hanging out with each other and enjoying their company, even to the point that you almost forget this is a thriller and the cops are closing in on the hero. But close in they do, leading up to a ridiculous ending where dancing fool Jesse has a showdown with the law: this, too, is turned into a celebration of being young and alive, but by that time you may not be quite so convinced. Music by Jack Nitzsche, but mainly listen for the eclectic choice of songs on the soundtrack.