Not Your Average Copy

Here’s a topic I’ve been excited about: the comparisons between original French films and their American remakes. There are so many different films out there, sometimes you don’t even realize it was a remake at all! And why bother spending more money on a remake? Can’t they just release the original films with subtitles? Turns out, there’s a reason why directors choose to remake films, and it’s not because they want credit in another country. No, once you begin analyzing and interpreting these films you begin to see that they are not in fact remakes, but adaptations created to suit the audiences cultural values. Hollywood knows what American audiences want and sometimes the French original doesn’t quite fit our preferences. Out of all the films to choose from, A very apparent and probably well known example of this is Godard’s 1960 film A Bout de Souffle and McBride’s 1983 remake Breathless.

Godard’s film can be seen as an example of nouvelle vague, a term used to describe films from the 1950s to the 1960s that were influenced by Hollywood cinema and rejected the ideas of classical cinema. Godard uses little technology and preferred using  hand held cameras and natural lighting. He experimented with dialogue and frequently used jump cuts to create a modernist and independent work. These creative choices of course result in a film that many consider to be “European Art” when in fact, the films can be considered as uniquely French. According to Mazdon’s book Encore Hollywood, Godard himself stressed his want for innovation by saying,

‘What I wanted to do was to take a conventional story and then remake, in different ways, all the cinema which had come before” (Mazdon 79).

Mazon continues to explore Godard’s use of intertextuality throughout the film. The main character, Michel, expresses a fascination with American culture: smoking Lucky Strike cigarettes, listening to Radio Luxembourg, and of course pursuing an American girl living in France. The film itself pays homage to the film noir style and american gangster films of the 1930s and 1940s. So, taking into account the strong influence of American culture in the film and Godard’s experimental choices,  A Bout de Souffle is a remake itself–a remake of traditional French cinema.

For those who haven’t seen the film, here is a clip that shows the experimental dialogue and style in which A Bout de Souffle is created in. Here, Michel is threatening to strangle Patricia, his American love interest, if she doesn’t smile by the count of eight.

Very experimental right? Ok, now compare that with this trailer for the American remake Breathless. (I would compare scenes side by side, but given the limited selection from Youtube, I don’t have much choice).

Click here to watch the trailer for A Bout de Souffle.

I think just the trailer itself shows such a difference between the tone and style of both films. The film shows many elements of Hollywood cinema: an very romantic relationship, more action and dialogue, and a famous celebrity (Richard Gere) to play lead role. Although the narrative of the film is the exact same as Godard’s film, it is important to remember that it is not simply a copy but an adaptation. Just as A Bout de Souffle is part of the nouvelle vague movement, there is evidence, according to Mazdon, of the Postmodernism movement. The main character, Jesse, has a love for the song Breathless” by Jerry Lewis and identifies himself with the main character from the comic book Silver Surfer, this is parallel to Michel’s infatuation with Humphrey Bogart. However, unlike Godard’s film, these objects are without reference and have no specific meaning; they are not considered “high art” or significant cultural references as Godard’s reference to Bogart is.

After watching both films side by side, you will begin to see how different, yet the same these two films are. Keep in mind they are not simply copies of each other, but rather an interpretation made to fit the culture it is being presented to. Both films explore the French and American identity in cinema. So next time you hear about a movie being remade, try not to immediately dismiss it as a form of unoriginality. Watch both films and see what specific choices the director has made.

For those of you who are curious, here are a few other French films and their original!

  • La Femme Nikita and Point of Return
  • Trois Hommes et un Couffin and Three Men and a Baby 
  • Un Diner de Cons and Dinner for Schmucks
  • La Cage aux Folles and Birdcage

Watch, analyze, and let me know what you find!


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