Cinema loves teenagers. From the sophistication of Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita (1962) to the original gross-out comedy Porky’s (1982), to the endless stream of modern-day teen-flicks like American Pie (1999), the sexual anxieties and psychological torments of young people on the cusp of change are a staple of cinematic scrutiny.
The treatment, however, varies enormously. Damien Odoul’s debut film Le Souffle (Deep Breath) navigates the murkier, more poetic side of hormonal rage, exchanging the cheap shots and gross-out gags of American teen films for a more considered and continental approach. Like teenagers themselves, this film is very much about mood.
Shot in high-contrast black and white in the Limousin region of France, Le Souffle unravels during one summer day on a farm where a group of male peasants get together for a wine-heavy barbecue. The main protagonist is David, a city boy who is spending a holiday on the farm. David is a restless mass of unfocussed energy who doesn’t quite know what to do when gripped in the throes of boredom. He picks up objects only to put them immediately back in place. He chases the farm’s rooster. He sulks and pouts and looks moody. Most of all, he looks completely lost amongst the group of brash, rough countrymen who are his only companions in the countryside where he’s doomed to spend the rest of the summer.
One of the most beautiful details in Odoul’s film is its ability to capture the soporific air of a rural summer. The camerawork is like the lazy buzz of a bee on a sun-drenched afternoon. The light is saturated on gleaming surfaces, shadows are deep and dark, and everything is masked by a dreamy, slightly unreal air. In one sequence, David tries to prove himself to his companions by drinking his share of wine, but the alcohol inevitably proves stronger. David leaves the party to wallow in his drunken pubescent fantasies, and Odoul sets up some comically surreal scenes which beautifully illustrate the conflicting effects of drink, desire and an overdose of male hormones. He also often returns to the image of a wolf – a rather obvious metaphor, perhaps, but effective nonetheless.
Later in the film, David goes to meet the son of a rich farmer. Together they take an erratic wander through the woods, a setting which provides the fairy-tale backdrop to a pathetic accident that is again used to illustrate David’s aimless emotions and irrational fears. In his mind the incident becomes so overblown that it leaves him practically catatonic, thinking he is guilty of murder. No one ever said growing up would be easy.
Le Souffle, with its unapologetic artiness and aesthetic form, translates as an expressionist coming-of-age tale. It’s soothing to see a film about teenage angst that doesn’t use an urban setting or a drug-centric storyline, and which doesn’t feel the need to employ either the obligatory club sequence or the contrived realism of directors like Larry Clark. Spiritual solitude is the subject chosen by Le Souffle. Though at times the film succumbs to an overly academic approach (the way the director scrutinises the carved faces of the peasant men and their rugged Gallic features wouldn’t feel out of place in an anthropological film) overall this is a refreshing and original addition to the teen film canon. First and foremost an exercise in style, it’s a visual tone-poem, but one with psychological depth and great visual flair. Classy, dreamy stuff.