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Breathless

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There are several levels of cinematic incest at work in "Breathless," a new American film inspired by a 1959 French film that was itself inspired by countless even earlier Hollywood crime films, including "Gun Crazy," a movie that turns up in this movie.

This is the kind of movie for which you need your Filmgoer's Companion. Or maybe not; for its announced purpose, as a lurid melodrama about sex and death, it works well enough even without the cross-references. The movie stars Richard Gere, Hollywood's ranking male sex symbol, and Valerie Kaprisky, an unknown French actress, in a story of doom and obsession adapted from Jean-Luc Godard's 1959 "Breathless." The 1959 "Breathless" starred Jean-Paul Belmondo as a loutish young Frenchman who modeled his behavior on Bogart and Cagney, and bluffed his way into a fatal confrontation with the cops. Jean Seberg played a young American girl who came to Paris to study, met Belmondo and found herself sharing his bed and his fate.

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Godard's "Breathless" superimposed Hollywood images on French lifestyles. Jim McBride's 1983 "Breathless," from a script by L. M. (Kit) Carson, does a reverse on the same theme. This time the student (Kaprisky) is French; she's studying in Los Angeles. The lout (Gere) is an American hustler who has to get out of Las Vegas in a hurry, is chased by a highway patrolman and kills him in a confrontation that is deliberately ambiguous: Did he mean to shoot him or not? On the run, Gere moves in with Kaprisky, whom he knows only from a weekend fling in Vegas. They make passionate love. The girl gradually becomes aware that her lover is the subject of a statewide manhunt, and the chase leads from punk discos to the Hollywood hills.

McBride and Carson position their film somewhere between plausibility (in scenes on a campus, in a grocery store and in a Mexican restaurant) and stylized fantasy (in the garish red tones of the opening scenes and in Gere's deliberate overacting). Although movie buffs will probably enjoy the movie's cross-references, this "Breathless" is going to depend on its appeal to ordinary audiences. I imagine they'll be attracted by the notion of Gere as an erotic outlaw on the run, but how will they like him in this role? I thought Gere was deliberately repugnant, but in an interesting way. He plays a character so conceited, so self-absorbed and, I'm afraid, so dimwitted, that there's no opportunity to ever really care for or about him.

Kaprisky, as the young French student, is an unknown in a role too large and complex for her, and there are times when she seems lost in a scene, looking to Gere for guidance. The result is a stylistic exercise without any genuine human concerns we can identify with - and yet, an exercise that does have a command of its style, is good-looking, fun to watch, and develops a certain morbid humor.

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