Le Souffle (Deep Breath), 2001

As was the case with Louise Malle and Murmur of the Heart, Le Souffle (Deep Breath) has (according to the director) a distinct autobiographical identity. For director Damien Odoul, memories of time in the French countryside were far from idyllic. These areas are usually depicted in a variety of artistic forms as breathtaking splendors. Few artists flesh out the unsettling aspects of being surrounded by nature. Le Souffle is an eerie and carnal experience in this regard. It is also exemplifies the magnetic force of nature as a backdrop in the coming-of-age process.

The serenity of nature is often an accompaniment to youth, sexual awakening, and so much more in cinema. You can see it in films like The Blue Lagoon and The Emerald Forest. In a simplified sense, you cannot fully relate to that fantasy; people are not stranded on an island during puberty. In Le Souflle we find an experience that is a lot more tangible.

The teenage protagonist, David, is a troublesome city boy who’s been delivered unto the guardianship of his uncles. He’s been expelled from school and a change in surrounding seems crucial. The uncles humor David’s laziness and insolence, as their age and isolation have given way to passivity.

Though he has earned no reward during his stay, they allow him to attend a special occasion. The ritual pastime of village men lunching together and getting drunk is a statement of manhood. By being asked to participate, young David is deemed a man by his elders. They believe that this rite of passage will inspire a sense of belonging and responsibility.

But for the oversexed and emotionally unwound teen, there are many other things that constitute manhood. Like most teens, he’s in a rush to accomplish each step. He’s also at odds with the slow realization of abandonment and its effect. As a result, the joyous occasion puts David on the precipice of understanding how the world works. This unfortunately unleashes confusion and tragic consequences.

On paper, the film’s elements wouldn’t appear to make for an an exceptional film—but it truly is. The photography is a wonderful aid, and it’s black and white the way black and white should be done. Not as a cheap ploy to insist on timelessness, but to stir wonder with its understated range. It shows the narrative possibilities when color is absent. 

Despite the plot taking place in the 2000s, the film brings to mind (and was most likely inspired by) the works of Jean Cocteau and Robert Bresson. Specifically Mouchette (a dizzying coming-of-age, woodsy film) and Au Hasard Balthazar (a film with religious overtones, turmoil, nature, and animals as our spiritual audience). There’s also a strong resemblance in some ways to Tony Richardson’s Mademoiselle.

The cast consists of non-actors, which paired with Odul’s cinematography instills a sense of genuine emotion. It’s certainly enough to make the viewer feel comfortable throughout the film, which is fairly short for a feature. 

Outside of the linear element of the plot, my favorite visuals can be found in the dreams of the protagonist. They are impossible, horrifying, and deftly beautiful expanses of imagination that seem oddly familiar. It’s kind of like the way everyone has had the same nightmare at least once. Or the memory of pumping their legs and flapping their arms until they hovered like Peter Pan. The kinds of things you don’t repeat past a certain age, which makes them all the more nostalgic.

Damien Odoul isn’t really known, which is unfortunate. I’d recommend his work, and specifically this film, to fans of French neorealism. I’d also recommended it if you’re just looking for a familiar yet surrealistic coming-of-age film.

 

Originally published for Amoeba Music’s “Movies We Like” blog, Dec. 21st, 2015

Director

Damien Odoul