"BREATHLESS," the American update on Jean-Luc Godard's innovative first feature (now nearing its 25th anniversary), opening today at area theaters, turns out to be a gaudy erotic showcase for a male stripper named Richard Gere.

A couple of feebleminded heads were put together on this would-be-torrid production, a kind of glorified featurette for Playgirl subscribers.

Director Jim McBride and screenwriting collaborator L.M. Kit Carson began their fitful careers with a small innovative picture, "David Holtzman's Diary," that paid more authentic homage to the example of orginality and resourcefulness Godard set with "Breathless" than this slicked-up, watered-down fiasco does. Presumably, McBride and Carson convinced themselves that they were being true to the spirit of the original, but their notion of a star-crossed romance played out between lovers attracted to criminal extremes is fundamentally devoted to pandering to a certain star image--Richard Gere as hunky jailbait.

A director once said of Richard Gere: "From what I've seen, he can only act from the neck down." After "Breathless," which finds Gere smirking and sashaying up a storm in order to appear irrepressibly carnal in the role of an impulsive young felon, the same director will probably feel safe revising his prejudice downward. Gere does the bulk of his acting from the waist down.

In fact, "Breathless" is rationalized commercially by the ongoing spectacle of Gere flirting with the camera. It seems to be an unseen public rather than the leading lady, a French actress named Valerie Kaprisky, that he's really lavishing all the playful mugging, stripteasing and pelvic gyrating upon. In the original "Breathless," Michel Poiccard, the prototypal French thug played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, has his little facial impression of Bogart, but in the update, before you've scarcely settled into your seat, Gere's Jesse comes at you with a shtik parade borrowed from Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Robert De Niro. Then he flashes, giving fans peek-a-boo glimpses of bare frontside as well bare backside.

Gere makes such a teasing production out of twitching his loins and gushing his yearning romantic heart out that you can't help reflecting that the ideal name for his character should be borrowed from the John Travolta beach boy in "Moment by Moment"--Strip. In a similar respect, the ideal title might be borrowed from the John Sayles life story, "The Last of the Bimbos." The filmmakers certainly seem to be confusing a bimbo with a protagonist.

Gere's character, called Jesse Lujack, is supposed to emerge as an endearing lawless Los Angeles version of the Belmondo prototype. However, the American travesty proves so gauche, especially when it's straining to appear sexy, that Gere and Kaprisky seem remarkably juvenile compared to the original lovers. Not that Belmondo and Jean Seberg, who played his blandly perfidious American girlfriend Patricia, weren't young people, but they seemed to be worldly, wised-up young monsters, too cynical and amoral to solicit sentimental consideration.

McBride and Carson dote all over their set of young lovers, and they attempt to balance the reversed nationalities by identifying the heroine as a French exchange student, named Monica Poiccard, who's studying architecture at UCLA. The best sustained material in Godard's "Breathless"--the interplay between Belmondo and Seberg--is reduced in the remake to puppyish endearments incongrously spiced up by naked friskiness.

The filmmakers seem to think they've achieved a rare eloquence when they give the hero lines like "I'm from Earth, I'm a person, I love you" or "Love is the power supreme--that's the whole story, baby." The heroine gets to mop up with such spongy confirmations as "I feel so free with you" and "Can we live in a house of grass by the sea?" Several of these priceless, all-wet exchanges seem even wetter because they're exchanged while the partners are all damp from exertions in the pool, the shower or the sack.

It's much more amusing when the tenderness gives way to sultry kitsch. For example, there's a funny moment when Gere bruises Kaprisky's lips while a saxophone player simultaneously bruises his lips on an overheated musical phrase.

McBride uses Godard's story outline, which depicts the protagonist stealing a car, killing a cop and then consorting with his girlfriend while attempting to raise enough money to get out of town. He fails to invent equivalence for the original lovers, whose casual amorality has now become a picturesque and sentimental punk's grand passion. McBride also fails to face squarely the scene in which the criminal hero commits murder and the conclusion in which he meets a violent fate of his own.

There's also no stylistic equivalent to the leap-frogging continuity that Godard invented, a crisp shorthand form of exposition. Curiously, the French heroine has no particular emotional meaning for these American filmmakers--certainly nothing comparable to the love-hate significance of the American coed imagined by Godard and embodied so perfectly by Seberg.

The new heroine's study of architecture seems purely decorative as far as her character is concerned, but the movie is at its most imaginative pictorially when McBride, production designer Richard Sylbert and cinematographer Richard Kline systematically exploit eccentric architectural landmarks around Los Angeles. They're especially fond of using billboards and murals painted on building fac,ades as scenic backdrop, and it is suggestive, foreshadowing imagery.

I'm not sure what this vehicle means for Gere, the obvious object of its adoration. He's playing a cliche' of reckless, hunky masculinity that might cause lucrative palpitations in the segments of the public the filmmakers are banking on.

Possibly it remains a conceptual, artistic setback after his role in "An Officer and a Gentleman." That movie provided Gere with a breakthrough bad-boy oportunity--he could grow out of boyish deviousness and narcissism; he learned to straighten up and fly right and eventually did right by the sexy treasure of a girl who loved him.

"Breathless" returns him to an earlier career status: a small-time American gigolo looking for pickups in Mr. Goodbar. BREATHLESS

Directed by Jim McBride; screenplay by L.M. Kit Carson and Jim McBride, based upon the motion picture "A Bout de Souffle" from the screenplay by Jean-Luc Godard of the story by Francois Truffaut; director of photography, Richard H. Kline; music by Jack Nitzsche; edited by Robert Estrin; executive producer, Keith Addis; produced by Martin Erlichman for Martin Erlichman Productions. Presented by Orion Pictures Corp. Rated R. THE CAST Jesse....Richard Gere Monica....Valerie Kaprisky Birnbaum....Art Metrano Lt. Parmental....John P. Ryan Sgt. Enright....Robert Dunn