NYFF 2001 REVIEW: 400 Breaths; Odoul's Spellbinding Debut "Deep Breath"
by Patrick Z. McGavin
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Patrick Z. McGavin reviewed “Deep Breath” at this year’s Venice Film Festival. The film will screen tonight at the New York Film Festival.]
Bound by a classical shape and absolutely spellbinding imagery, “Le souffle” (“Deep Breath,” screening in the Venice, Toronto and New York Film Festivals), the first feature of 33-year-old Damien Odoul, is a startling and provocative work by a filmmaker who clearly has put a great deal of thought and personal conviction into the material. The film is marred by Odoul’s too frequently deployed Christian imagery and overt symbolism, though it is also enlivened and deepened by the director’s thoughtful and fascinating references to the early films of Francois Truffaut and the rigorous, punishing style of Robert Bresson.
Shot in highly textured black and white, and set in the sun-bleached landscapes of the open fields of France’s Limousin region, “Deep Breath” opens with assured, serene images of rural life punctured by an act of butchery. It sets in motion Odoul’s penchant for extreme shifts in subjectivity and tone. The thin, relaxed story details the emotionally crippling experiences of David (Pierre-Louis Bonnetblanc), a 15-year-old, kicked out of school, who has been exiled for the summer to work with his two uncles in their isolated farm village. David is enraptured with images of freedom and escape. He tries desperately to assert his freedom and individualism. “I walk any way I want, even sideways if I feel like it,” he says.
Odoul is primarily concerned with states of expression, feeling and consciousness. Virtually everything David does is an inspired act of rebellion. His father, brutish, defeated and absented, deserted him and his mother when he was younger. Denied of everything in his alien, uncertain surroundings, David avoids personal responsibilities and simply drifts from one idle, unsatisfying moment to the next. Though David is older than
Antoine Doinel in Truffaut’s own debut, “The 400 Blows,” the characters share the same depth of frustration, boredom and desired release. Like Truffaut’s short film “Les mistons,” the movie acknowledges the narrow margin between freedom and recklessness.
Just as impressive, Odoul has a shrewd, confident way with group interaction, smoothly binding the grizzled, highly particular supporting characters into an almost ecstatic musical flow. David spends much of the film under the near hallucinatory influence of wine he imbibed during a highly ritualistic lunch he shares with his uncles and their friends. Gripped by fever dreams fracturing both memory and time, the appearance of his father and the highly sexual presence of his girlfriend, David moves in a perpetual dead space between feeling and dread, trying desperately, like many of Bresson’s conflicted characters, to achieve some form of salvation.
Significantly, like Bresson, Odoul works exclusively here with nonprofessional actors, and he captures with uncanny precision the purity and expression of casually amoral youth. With the other villagers a succession of eccentrics and enigmatic figures, David has only one possible soul mate, the quiet and resourceful Matthieu (Laurent Simon). Both are in pursuit of something that hovers near them, that which cannot be fully articulated and acknowledged, and it is that very unknown that holds promise and tragic repercussions.
Odoul and his cinematographer Pascale Granel have a sure, confident feel for imagery and physical expression that achieves a complex emotional intensity. The most startling image involves David submerging himself in water, a moment that instantly returns him to his closest sexual experience, swimming in the nude with his girlfriend Aurore (Laure Magadoux), a beautiful, accomplished, privileged woman who remains considerably outside his reach.
“Deep Breath” returns constantly to the mysteries and wonder of experience and the acute frustration trying to reconcile what we long for and what is actually available. The movie has a great deal of form and beauty in the compositions and use of landscape, light and water. More importantly, Damien Odoul strives to locate a rich and ambiguous humanity.
[Patrick Z. McGavin is a Chicago-based writer and film critic.]