(2016, Bruno Dumont)
[3 out of 5 stars]
[Showing at the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival 2017. Details here]
It's hard to escape from the current political discourse. Everyday there seems to be something new to worry about the world we are living in. Not even the picturesque beaches of Northern France in the 1910s can provide a means of escape from this dialogue. I saw this film after hearing about the Trump administration's budget cuts for Meals on Wheels, a service that has fed those in need for years. Of course, the main culprit of the inescapable political cycle is Twitter with its infinity scroll of bite-sized tweets. After the news broke about Meals on Wheels, people declared: eat the rich!
Taken from the quote of French philosopher Rousseau, "when the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich", it's hard not to think of it when you see a working-class family, who transport rich holidaymakers across the water, kill and eat their customers. This depiction of cannibalism is introduced casually but the images resonate. The film alternates between scenes showing the lives of the rich and those of the poor.
In the beginning, the mother from the upper-class family delightfully points out a group of mussel gatherers. "How picturesque!", she exclaims. Later on, she and her husband look upon a boatman working on the water, also declaring how serene and beautiful the scene is and displaying their obliviousness to the world around them. Their preoccupation with the picturesque is highly exaggerated by the actors with strange hand gestures and over-enunciating their lines. It's not far from the mannerisms I've seen from the visitors of art museums I've visited.
On the surface this is a light, silly and bizarre film. There are numerous scenes of people falling over in the sand and A-list French actors like Juliette Binoche chewing the scenery with her shrill line delivery and incessant, exaggerated eye-rolling. French aristocrats run across the beach trying to catch a large man who suddenly floats up to the sky like a loose ballon. He sounds like his suit his filled with balloons and the rubbery squeaks he makes (wonderfully produced by the foley artists) every time he walks and falls makes much more sense. It's so cartoonish that I half-expected onomatopoeic sounds to appear on the screen.
But amidst the frivolity, there is a dark underlying exploration of the darker side of humanity. The cinematography is bright, and yes, picturesque. It has a painterly quality that perfectly illustrate its early 19th-century setting. The weather is atmospheric and moody, the faces pallid, the eyes a piercing blue and the compositions museum-ready. It's like quaint paintings of coastal landscapes like those by Bongton or Harpignies but laced with the realistic depiction and contrast to the lives of the working class in Millet's The Gleaners (1857) or Repin's Barge Haulers on the Volga (1870-1873). It's also ironic that these paintings are nowadays sold in auction houses for exorbitant amounts of money to the rich, some who only keep these pictures for investment and the paintings never seeing the light of day.
The interplay between the lives of the affluent and those of the destitute is always going to produce awkwardness and a cloud of sad irony. The two families are eventually put in a position where they have to interact with each other, even sharing a meal together, and these are the best and most telling scenes.
There is not much story to speak of, this is more a play and mockery of society. An exercise that is captivating in its beauty, silly in its humour and despondent with its themes. It all comes together at the end though even if it leaves you scratching your head.
From top left:
- Bonington's A coastal landscape with fisherfolk, a beached boat beyond (1802-1828)
- Harpignies' Paysage (1901)
- Repin's Barge haulers on the Volga (1870-1873)
- Millet's The Gleaners (1857)