Breathless ’83 | Horny on Main

Credit: Orion Pictures

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Breening Breathless

Ellisha Izumi

During my research for this volume on the pre-Code era of Hollywood Cinema, I came across a blog called ‘The Pure Entertainment Preservation Society’ (PEPS) with the tagline: ‘Save the Arts in America!’. Their mission is simple: bring back the Production Code and restore the morals of society. The blog celebrates the stars, fashion, and filmmaking of Old Hollywood, as well as posting on a range of films and their compliance (or not) with The Code plus links to several petitions to bring it back.

This unique combination of passionate cinephilia and zealous dedication to The Code set my mind ablaze. 

The Production Code was written in response to growing anxieties about cinema’s potential power to influence the suggestible members of its audience. Films were being watched by a mass audience of unprecedented numbers, a diverse crowd that included children, the elderly and those from all walks of life. Or, as The Code describes, ‘the cultivated and the rude, the mature and the immature, the self-respecting and the criminal’ (note the classist inference). In order to maintain independence from censors, appease detractors, maintain their mass audience and most importantly their mass profits, the industry created the Production Code and later the Production Code Administration (PCA) to enforce it. 

Among the three guiding principles of The Code is the need to portray ‘correct standards of life’ e.g. to ban the rude (no burping), the crude (no vulgar humour) and placate the prudes (no lustful embracing). The second major tenet was to uphold ‘law, natural or human’ which for example, included banning the depiction of homosexuals (considered a sin) and interracial romance (known as miscegenation, which was illegal). The effects of these rules can still be felt almost a century later, as better representation for these relationships and groups are still being fought for today. The most important principle was not to ‘lower the moral standard of those who see it’ with no sympathy ‘thrown to the side of crime, wrong-doing, evil or sin’, in other words protagonists must never be criminal, amoral, heathens and their sexuality must be modest. If these things absolutely had to be depicted, it must only be carefully and tastefully alluded to, and in the end, clearly punished.

On PEPS, every Thursday is ‘Breening Thursday’, named not for infamous so-bad-its-good filmmaker Neil Breen, but Joseph I. Breen, the head of the PCA from 1934-54, the era that PEPS heralds as the most robust adherence to The Code. On Breening Thursday the authors of PEPS publish blog posts wherein they apply The Code to non-code films. PEPS argues that breening can not only make films more appropriate for wider audiences but actually improve them, ‘the removal of such elements often leads to the deepening of plot and the development of characters.’ The PCA worked with the filmmakers at every stage of production; Breen’s method was to maintain the main plot and themes of the films while removing the unsavoury elements and disguising mature themes with careful implication and delicate innuendo.
PEPS takes this approach and hypothesises what would happen to a non-code film if they could go back in time and advise the filmmakers of the past.

As a fan of erotic thrillers, ambiguous endings and Hollywood sex symbols, what would happen if I breened my favourite film? Could it be made suitable for a wide audience, or even improved?

The film that I cherish the most is Breathless, the exhilarating 1983 remake of the 1960 classic. Yes, you read that correctly, director Jim McBride and screenwriter LM Kit Carson dared to remake the seminal French film by Jean-Luc Godard, in English, in LA and starring Richard Gere. The original film follows Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a French car-thief on the run from the law, as he tries to convince his sometime lover Patricia (Jean Seberg), an American in Paris, to run away with him. The remake translates this to Jesse (Richard Gere) an American car-thief trying to convince Monica (Valerie Kaprisky), an ambitious French architecture student and his one-time lover, to run away with him to Mexico. Richard Gere is on the cusp of sex-symbol-stardom and gives an unruly and memorably wild performance. It’s LA in a heatwave, it’s a steamy 80s thriller and it’s lovers on the lam. You don’t need to have seen the original to know their relationship is doomed. Where Godard’s Breathless was a radical formal break from establishment cinema, McBride’s Breathless brings things full circle, referencing Godard and classical Hollywood, contemporary Philip Glass and vintage Jerry Lee Lewis, remixing the contemporary with the retro in a dazzling, stylised fever-dream that asks the question: can our anachronistic hero survive in a modern reality? 

To quote PEPS, ‘with no further ado, let the breening begin!’

I’ll start with surface level breening: the removal of offensive elements that would not fundamentally alter the core plot of the film. The costumes would have to be thrown out and redesigned, not just the figure-hugging, skin-glimpsing outfits of the protagonists but the outfits worn by the extras and supporting cast too. Gone are the rippling bodies of the crowds on Muscle Beach, the buxom Las Vegas floozy, the irritable cross-dresser in the restaurant. While the plot would remain intact, the film loses some of its flavour. Gone is the vivid preservation of Venice Beach, Las Vegas and LA in the 1980s: a sanitised approximation would be left in its place. 

The profanity would also have to go, I’d be particularly saddened to lose the moment when Lt. Parmental (John P. Ryan) utters the immortal line, ‘Don’t F-U-C-K with the LAPD!’. This would have to be changed. Maybe something like ‘Don’t M-E-S-S with the LAPD!’. 

Removing these elements might make some people more comfortable, but this undermines the complex and creative storytelling that can be achieved through costume, mise-en-scene or the effective deployment of a harsh word. 

Removing the on-screen sex from the film would not only be a surface level breen, but a structural deep breen, weakening the central dialectical tension of the film: fantasy vs reality. In Breathless ’83 fantasy is signified by Hollywood, rock ‘n’ roll and passionate sex. Time and time again, Jesse turns away from his reality of the manhunt against him, to sing Elvis Presley, read comics, chase his dreams and have sex with Monica. Monica must make the same choice, will she choose the fast cars, the red necklace, the pink dress and the sizzling sex that Jesse offers? Or will she choose her real life, her chic Memphis Milano apartment, the gentle pastels of her college campus, the cool greys of modern architecture that represent her career goals? If her passion with Jesse was represented fully-clothed, through veiled dialogue and delicate innuendo, the juxtaposition between the two would be weakened. 

The moment which would be the most difficult to breen would be the film’s ending (you can skip the next paragraph if you want to avoid spoilers), for the way it challenges The Code’s most valued principle on the alignment of audience’s sympathies for criminal behaviour.

The brilliance of the film is perhaps captured best in its final moments. Watching Breathless ’83, one wonders, how will they tackle the iconic ending of Breathless ’60? They can’t recreate it, and they don’t. Like the original, we find Jesse and Monica in the middle of the road with the cops closing in from all directions. Jesse’s friend Berrutti tosses him a gun, which lands at his feet. Jesse has a choice, turn himself in or pick up the gun, ensuring his death. To the bewilderment of Monica and the cops he starts dancing and singing ‘Breathless’, by his idol Jerry Lee Lewis, and when he reaches the end of the chorus he scoops up the gun and BANG. The frame freezes, and an electrifying punk rock cover of ‘Breathless’ by the band X plays as the end credits roll. Instead of Jesse’s death, McBride freezes on Jesse’s choice: immortalised on the silver screen like his heroes, he’d rather live fast and die young. In the genius of the freeze-frame Jesse now occupies an interstitial place between life and death, a legend in his own mind and now on the screen. However, under Breen we must lose the ambiguity of the interstitial and the punishment for his life of crime must be recognised. As per The Code sympathy must not be created for the violation of the law. The scene would continue past the freeze-frame, with Jesse shot dead and Monica and the cops reacting to the fall out in a pale imitation of its progenitor. Many films of the code era end in this way, from White Heat (1949) to Gun Crazy (1950) – also prominently referenced in Breathless ’83 – where the gun-toting outlaws unequivocally meet their demise, the final frame resting on the troubled cops who chased them down, uttering the last line and casting moral judgement on the events of the film.

It’s for these reasons that I deem Breathless ’83 un-breenable. But what did we learn about the practice of breening? 

While Breathless ’83 and PEPS may seem to have irreconcilable values, they both share a deep reverence for the past. PEPS celebrates The Breen-Era, from the fashion and the stars, to the filmmaking and the often uplifting messages. Breathless ‘83 celebrates Old Hollywood, the French New Wave, rock ‘n’ roll and comic books and engages with their meanings in a steamy new context: it’s postmodernism at its most sensual. But where Breathless transforms its references, PEPS freezes them. PEPS breens non-code films and realigns them with The Code, back to a fixed point in time, with a fixed set of values. But society’s values are not fixed and movie classification must evolve to reflect the values of the world it occupies. 

In the UK, Breathless ‘83 was classified as an 18 by the BBFC. On home video release, it retained its 18 rating even with the removal of detailed shots of Jesse picking locks. For the 2015 Blu-ray release the previously offending scenes were reinstated and Breathless was reclassified as a 15. The variable nature of moral values is the problem with returning to The Code. Not only is the language vague, assuming the reader shares its values, but values vary by social group, by region, by country. Values shift drastically over time, as the changing BBFC classification of Breathless ‘83 shows us. Did the dissolution of The Code change the morals of society, as PEPS argues, or did the classification system change to better reflect shifting values, responding to the work of progressive advocacy groups and listening to marginalized voices? I struggled to apply The Code to Breathless because what’s offensive to Breen is inoffensive to me. I could only guess at what must go, doing my best to apply the nebulous notions of The Code and the values of a bygone era. PEPS is a pop-culture obsessed anomaly, chasing a long-lost concept in vain, just like Jesse in Breathless

Maybe that’s what so drew me to PEPS. With a dogged determination PEPS wants to bring back The Code, but like Jesse’s dreams, it’s an anachronistic fantasy, incompatible with the contemporary world.