Sunday, 16 March 2014

Smoke and Mirrors

portrait of Michèle Breton on the set of Performance, 1968
Michèle Breton, 1968
This beautiful portrait of Michèle Breton caught my eye as i researched the film Performance. Unfortunately there is no photographer credit (it could possibly be one of the Cecil Beaton images taken on set that Warner Bros refused to pay for. Sandy Lieberson, Performance's producer, eventually paid Beaton's fee out of his own pocket ) for this image that acts as the holding image for the preview video on the Warner Bros Performance webpage. Surprisingly the page doesn't feature a photo of big name stars Mick Jagger, James Fox or Anita Pallenburg. No, they decided to go with a  fabulous image of seventeen year old Michèle Breton, who played Lucy, dressed in her Carnaby Street finery. It's one of the finest publicity portrait shots from the film, and yet of all of the main stars of the film, Michèle Breton's subsequent life after the filming of Performance finished remains one of the most enigmatic aspects of the film's history.

Type Michèle Breton's name into Google and you can easily find links, photographs, articles about the film, and more. Michèle's name even comes up in the auto suggestions list, yet a vast amount of the information relates purely to her role as Lucy in the cult 1968 British film. Information about her life afterwards is scant, poorly sourced and most often wildly inaccurate, which has really opened my eyes to how appallingly unreliable the internet can be when there is an information vacuum. The less is known the more it seems people make things up. No sources, evidence or links. Just assumption, rumour and innuendo dressed up as fact. It isn't particularly helped by the fact that Performance is a cult film and is closely connected with the Rolling Stones story. Keith Richards also knew Michèle, briefly mentioning her (page 254 where he also reveals her nickname was Mouche - which means Fly in French - is the nickname a reference to one of her lines in the film?) in his 2010 autobiography called Life. However even books can get things wrong.

Marianne Faithfull's 1994 autobiography called Faithfull: An Autobiography is a perfect example of how an assumption or rumour can be made to appear as fact. So much so that it is still often quoted. A paragraph on page 155 mentions Breton which reads 'Michèle Breton didn't fare so well either. She became a heroin dealer in Marseilles shortly after the film and is, I think, probably dead by now'  The last line is the interesting section, where Faithfull uses the 'and is, I think, probably dead by now'. It's hardly a definitive statement of fact, which was fortunate as things turned out, although you can't really blame Marianne for thinking that way. The drug casualty rate after the late sixties was horrific as addiction took tight hold and reaped its deadly toll. Faithfull herself suffered many lost years of drug addiction, well documented in her book, but there does also seem to be an  fatalistic attitude amongst writers, especially those who lived through the sixties, who just assume survival isn't a likely outcome. Many didn't survive - Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Gram Parsons, were just a few of the names who succumbed during the early seventies - but others, like Marianne Faithfull, did eventually recover. They did survive.

James Fox and Michèle Breton in Performance
In late 1999, Mick Brown, a freelance journalist and broadcaster, released 'Mick Brown on Performance', a book that remains an essential A-Z guide for anyone interested in the movie. In the book Michèle Breton is finally tracked down to Berlin where she casts some light on her life. Oddly Brown starts with an error, stating that Breton's only film role was in Performance. This isn't correct. The French actress appears (aged 16) in Jean-Luc Godard's well regarded black comedy film Weekend made in 1967. Michèle makes an uncredited appearance as a hippie revolutionary in the movie, approximately an hour and twenty four minutes into the film, dressed in a white top, red jacket and skirt with knee length boots, carrying a wicker basket. Very thin, with short curly hair, slightly longer than she had it in Performance, it's unmistakably her. On screen for a total of about one and a half minutes - one scene even includes her dancing - there is a very good close-up shot where Michèle is easily identifiable, assisting a blood soaked cook. She is also listed on IMDB as playing Atena in three episodes of the epic 1968 Italian produced TV series Odissea though unfortunately i have been unable to find any footage of her as Atena from the series to confirm this.

Regardless of that small error, Brown's book is very revealing about Breton's life. Born and raised up in a small town in Brittany, Michèle, just aged sixteen, was given 100 Francs by her parents, put on a train to Paris and told by her parents that they never wanted to see her again! Drifting to St Tropez in 1967, she ended up meeting Donald Cammell who would later cast her in the role of Lucy. After Performance had been completed in late 1968, Cammell drove her back to Paris, let her stay two or three days and then said that he didn't want to see her any more. For five years she drifted around France ( according to writer Robert Greenfield, Michèle visits Nellcôte where the Stones were recording 'Exile on Main St' in 1971. Srangely Greenfield lists Michèle as 'missing in action and presumed to be gone as well' at the end of his 2006 article without giving any details about his search for her or why he presumes she's dead!) and Spain, being busted for drugs on the island of Formentera, from where she flees back to Paris on the run from the police. It was then that she decided to head east, following the hippie drug trail, arriving in Kabul, Afghanistan, regarded at the time as the Paris of central Asia, sometime in the mid seventies. For a year she stayed there shooting morphine, even selling her passport and possessions at one extreme low point, before finally deciding to quit during an LSD trip. After three months in hospital in India, she returns to Kabul, then Europe via Italy before settling down in Berlin in 1982 where Mick Brown finds her thirteen years later.

Michèle Breton as Lucy
Michèle Breton's story really is quite an impressive tale of survival, both during the making of Performance and in the life she led afterwards, described by Mick Brown as 'a  life of drug-addiction, destitution and mental breakdown'. Reading through you want to know more about the remarkable and painful journey that she made. The making of the Performance appears to have been especially tough and bitter experience for the then very young, understandably delicate and insecure actress. Only James Fox gets a positive mention for his behaviour ('he was very gentle to me') on set, the rest being on 'a heavy ego-trip'. To a large extent that gentle relationship with Fox comes across in the film too. Stoned most of the time on set, Breton herself later stated ' I was very young and very disturbed. I didn't know what i was doing and they used me'. Was she exploited? The evidence certainly points that way especially when you consider how quickly she was discarded by Donald Cammell (with whom she had been in a ménage à trois, along with Cammell's then girlfriend Deborah Dixon, since 1967), shortly after filming had finished. Her relationship with Cammell had lasted over a year. Keith Richards' damning assessment of Donald Cammell's character in his book Life (pages 253-255) would appear to be a pretty accurate one.

Mick Brown's book shows Breton alive and in Berlin up to the release of the book in late 1999, and yet the rumours of her death and suicide still persist. Robert Greenfield hints, in a Faithfull like fashion, at this in his 2006 Rolling Stone article and even the Guardian in 2004 clearly state that 'Pallenberg and Breton succumbed to heroin, Breton fatally so.' No obituary source is mentioned - the journalist Michael Holden probably just used Faithfull's brief mention of Breton as evidence. Holden's Performance article is further undermined by further errors including the death of cast member John Bindon, who the article says was stabbed to death in a nightclub, but who actually died of liver cancer in his flat in 1993. Poor research seems the likely culprit but misinformation like this spreads online, especially from 'trusted' sources like the Guardian. It's one of the reason why i wanted to create this post and state the known facts about Michèle Breton from a reliable source - Mick Brown's on Performance. So far THE only reliable source I've found.

An extensive search online (as of the time of writing - March 2014) relating to the possible suicide, overdose or death of Michèle Breton (since the Mick Brown interviews took place) has revealed absolutely nothing. So where next? Hopefully a read of Paul Buck's 2012 book 'Performance: biography of a sixties classic' may bring things up to recent times. If Michèle Breton is still alive, and i have absolutely no evidence yet to suggest otherwise, she will be 63 years of age. She told Mick Brown in 1995 'I've done nothing with my life. Where did it start going wrong? I can't remember. It's something like destiny'.  I just hope that in the time since Michèle's last interview, the years have been kinder and more generous towards her.

8 comments:

Brilig said...

Fascinating. Very intrigued as to what happened to her having just watched DVD of Performance. You have saved me hours of time trawling through the internet. . Hope she is still alive - bit of a sad life. Thanks.

Richard Flint said...

Many thanks for the comment. I was just so fed up of gossip and made up 'facts' being spread around. I still have some reading to do about Performance and hopefully I'll be add another post to the site later with an update.

ROOKSBY said...

At last, an intelligent conjecture-free article that addresses the fascinating Lucy / Michele, probably Performance's most evocative lingering mystery (for me anyway).

I'd like to think that she's still out there somewhere, writing her memoirs.

Many thanks. :)

Anonymous said...

Hi, you can see Michèle Breton as Athena in the Odyssey (1968) directed by Franco Rossi. Unfortunately the series, very accurate to the book, has never been release in dvd in America. In Europe, there is a dvd version but it's only available in german or italian language. At least, it's available on youtube, in the french version. In the third episode, at 1h10 min., Ulysse has just returned to Ithaque. He meet Athena (Breton) in the shape of a young shepperd.
https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=ww3291Av4hE
Thanks for your researchs about her.

Keiron Pim said...

Good work, this is fascinating and a valuable counterpoint to the internet's swirl of conjecture masquerading as fact. I have little to add other than that I was in touch with Mick Brown earlier this year (I'm currently finishing a book about David Litvinoff, Donald Cammell's friend whose underworld experiences informed its plot) and he said that he tried to contact Michele Breton in Berlin a couple of years ago, but he couldn't get any reply. As a result his feeling was that she is probably no longer with us. Again, though, no conclusive evidence for that, so the mystery lingers on.

Anonymous said...

Excellent article i just watched 'Performance' due to its references in Alan Moore's, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics and my first thought afterwards was, who the hell was that fascinating french woman? :)

Cagouille said...

Vous me Pardonnerez de m'exprimer en français, mon anglais trop mauvais. J'ai moi même recherché des informations sur Michèle Breton sans aucun succès. L'article de ce site est le plus complet et le plus documenté qu'il m'est été donné de lire. Je me demande néanmoins si Michèle n'avait pas changé son nom. En effet une bretonne avec pour patronyme "Breton" me semble un peu "TOO MUCH" comme disent les français. Peut-être vit elle encore quelque part sous son véritable nom.

Michael Jones said...

I agree with Rooksby. Thank you for taking the time to try and be as accurate and unsensational as possible. Performance, when I first saw it aged 22, was a very disturbing but fascinating film. The whole gangster/rock/celebrity milieu continues on. Whenever people smell free money, there will always be problems.
A great film and I hope Michele has found happiness.
Thanks again

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