Movies We Like
As was the case with Louise Malle and Murmur of the Heart, Le Souffle (Deep Breath) has, according to its maker, a distinct autobiographical identity. For 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, outside of a handful of filmmakers, flesh out the unsettling aspects of being surrounded by nature. Le Souffle is not only an eerie, carnal experience in this regard, but 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 a film. You can see it in films like Blue Lagoon, for example. In a simplified metaphor, you can look but you cannot touch; you cannot relate to this fantasy. In Le Souflle we find the complete opposite, and so we find a far more invigorating experience.
The teenage protagonist, David, is a troublesome city boy who's been delivered unto the guardianship of his uncles after being expelled from school. The uncles humor David's laziness and insolence, their age and isolation having given way to passivity. Though he has earned no reward during his stay, they allow him to attend an informal occasion. The ritual pastime of the village men lunching together and getting drunk is a statement of manhood, and young David is thus deemed a man by being asked to participate.
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 unleashes a confused creature on the precipice of understanding how the world works. This, of course, brings 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 overwhelming range of light and dark, and the narrative possibilities it provides. Despite the plot taking place in the 2000s, the film brings to mind and was most likely inspired by such inspirational characters as 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, and this, paired with Odul being his own camera operator, 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: 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 sensation 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, specifically this film, to fans of French neorealism, as well as fans of the classics mentioned earlier. I'd also recommended it if you're just looking for a familiar, yet surrealistic take on the coming-of-age film.