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.

Sunday 9 March 2014

On Performance

What do you get when you cross a film about London villains and the sixties counter-culture? You get the film Performance which, for some reason or another, has got its hooks well and truly into me recently. The 1968 film with its unique visuals and dark sixties counter-culture atmosphere seems to have hit a nerve, or maybe saying that it haunts you is a better way of putting it. From the books and website posts listed online, it seems it haunts other people too. What i find more perplexing in my case is why? What does this film contain that makes it so compelling? It could be the excellent cinematography of Nicolas Roeg whose work I've admired for many years, but it appears to be more than that, Yes, there is the superb soundtrack, great story, an interesting cast, a fascinating production history but there is something else there. Something unseen like a dark creative undercurrent or vibe that runs through the whole film. It's a puzzle or riddle. The film seems to leave you with more questions than answers. Without doubt, it is one of the best films of the sixties.

James Fox as the gangster Chas
For those of you who haven't seen the movie, i would recommend a viewing, although it is definitely one of those love or hate experiences. As Rolling Stone magazine once wisely advised you should not watch this film while on an acid trip. Actually it's pretty intense with just a cup of tea as a stimulant! Performance is really a film of two distinct halves, dealing with two very different cultures that clash in the middle of the movie. James Fox play Chas who is an extortioner for a South London crime boss called Harry Flowers. Chas is very good at his job but is a loose cannon in a criminal organisation that sees its role more as business acquisitions and mergers management rather than as a criminal enterprise. With Chas starting to become unruly, something has to give and eventually Chas ends up mixing business with pleasure and kills a new business 'associate' protected by Harry Flowers' firm. The line has been crossed and with the firm popping up on the radar of the police, inland revenue and others, Harry Flowers decides that the only option is to remove the problem. Find and kill Chas. To escape the wrath of his boss Chas needs to hide and through an overheard conversation, he ends up entering the gloomy, decaying, late sixties bohemian counter-culture world of 25 Powis Square, Notting Hill - the home of the fading, eccentric and reclusive rock star Turner (played by Mick Jagger) who has "lost his demon".

Anita Pallenburg and Mick Jagger in  Performance
At first glance, it appears to be the perfect hideaway and yet the poorly lit, decaying house exudes a deathly atmosphere which seems to saturate the film and the characters. Michèle Breton, who played Lucy, commented in a 1995 interview that when she watched the film in 1987 "I was feeling kind of sick looking at this. It was a feeling of death."  Even the décor retains an creepy evil presence right the way through the film although that could just be my aversion to sixties psychedelic art. There's definitely bad karma at number 25 and things are not going to work out for the better. Curtains remain firmly closed, rooms remain sombre and the colours somewhat muted, daylight seems to be shunned with Turner preferring artificial light. Patches of daylight amongst the darkness do appear occasionally and provide the same deathly aura of Colonel Kurtz's Cambodian jungle base in Apocalypse Now. Turner and his two female companions Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) and Lucy (Michèle Breton) appear to want to block the outside world out including the light and exist in their own little world influenced by music, art, literature and plenty of drugs. Then the world arrives at their door in the shape of Chas but it soon becomes clear that the violent and unpredictable villain is well out of his depth. The rest of the film deals with the consequences.

Anita Pallenburg and Michèle Breton in Performance
Performance was unusual in that it had two directors working on set. Nicolas Roeg was brought in to provide the visual style and technical skill, but it was Donald Cammell who would really shape the film; writing and developing his original story, selecting and coaching the actors, developing the project to the point where the lines between film set and real life would blur to become almost indefinable. The production was described by Marianne Faithfull, Jagger's girlfriend at the time, as 'a psycho-sexual lab’ and a 'seething cauldron of diabolical ingredients: drugs, incestuous sexual relationships, role reversals, art and life all whipped together into a bitch’s brew’.  It has to be said that the more you read about Donald Cammell, the harder it becomes to like him as an person. Keith Richards, Pallenburg's then boyfriend, never forgave the director for what went on during the filming, describing Cammell in his 2010 autobiography 'Life' as 'the most destructive little turd I've ever met. Also a Svengali, utterly predatory, a very successful manipulator of women. . . . Putting people down was almost an addiction for him." Cammell's talents successfully created the exact authentic psychological and sexual atmosphere needed to create the film, however the emotional toll on the actors appears to have  been considerable. Lost years of drug addiction awaited for the two female leads, James Fox left acting for ten years and joined a Christian sect in Leeds, Jagger's relationship with Keith Richards was damaged causing major problems for the film soundtrack and the Rolling Stones. Even Donald Cammell didn't escape completely unscathed, going onto a frustrating and ultimately unsatisfying career in Hollywood, directing just three more films before fatally shooting himself in 1996.

Memo to Turner featuring the great slide guitar work of Ry Cooder

In the end Warner Brothers hated the film when it was delivered to them. The executives thought they were getting a Mick Jagger film that would appeal to sixties youth like the Beatles 'A Hard Days Night'. Instead they got a drug and sex riddled Performance and they despised everything in it. It took nearly two years, numerous edits and a change of executives at the studio before the film would finally get a release in August 1970. It received a mixed reception on release but has, over the years, gained recognition as a classic British film and as Marianne Faithfull observed, the film 'preserves a whole era under glass. Even Mick Jagger's official website recommends it as THE Jagger film to watch. Thankfully due to this classic status, and it has to be said an intriguing production history and cast, there is plenty of research material out there for interested film buffs like myself, with at least four books detailing the history, production and references within the film - the most recent book being released as recently as 2012. So I'm going to start with 'Mick Brown's on Performance' which, according to the reviews on Amazon, details everything that you'd ever want to know. If I learn anything revelatory, and find my demon, I'll let you know.