Jim McBride’s Breathless (1983) is in many ways even more radical an aesthetic statement than Godard’s celebrated 1959 version. By switching the nationalities of the main couple, as well as by trading Paris for gaudy California, McBride shifted the meanings of the original material, and yet managed to preserve its core. The main theme here (as it was in Godard) is the displacement of an individual in democratic (i.e. Americanized) culture. McBride’s protagonist is even more steeped in pulp references and there’s more glee in his infatuation with the Silver Surfer comic-strip character than there was in Belmondo’s emulating Bogart’s cool.
McBride’s forceful visual style, and his stunning use of expertly choreographed long takes (my favorite is the long, teasing sex scene involving imaginative use of an answering machine and a plate-glass shower curtain), owes more to classical Hollywood storytelling than to Godard’s jump cuts. Thus this Breathless may seem less distanced from the popular culture intoxication that it both mocks and embraces. The scene with the couple making love in front of a movie screen on which Joseph H. Lewis’ Gun Crazy (1950) is playing, is both tacky in its shameless TV-ad-like gloss and stunning in how literal-minded and arresting its central metaphor is.