Hors de l’eau: an allegory of a dysfunctional society doomed to ruin

Simon Duong Van Huyen, Joel Durand, Thibault Leclercq, Valentin Lucas, Andrei Sitari, “Hors de l’eau” (2018)

A very well-made short film combining animation with some live action scenes, “Hors de l’eau” (“Out of the water”) runs as an allegory of human society: a group of Japanese snow macaques, led by an aggressive and unyielding alpha male, migrates up a mountain to a hot spring but is prevented by an elite clique of macaques monopolising the spring from using it. Over time, as winter in the mountain region worsens, the group of macaques, treated literally as a Great Unwashed, suffers and, unable to co-operate with the other macaque group, freezes to death. I’m sorry but the narrative of the film appears to be quite closely based on research of macaque behaviour individually and in groups, and this is borne out by the depiction of the various activities the macaques (including baby macaques at play) engage in, and by their communications.

The film has a severe look and can be harrowing for some viewers, especially in some of its final scenes. The tragedy is apparent in the last couple of scenes in which the severe winter weather abates and hints of spring appear. The style of the animation looks accurate enough, that it blends in easily with live action sequences, yet the animals have highly expressive faces and bright eyes. The entire film is presented from the point of view of one macaque whose face is never seen; viewers only see her hands and arms as they caress a baby or rub together to keep warm. Forcing viewers to inhabit the female macaque as it were, makes the film all the more confronting and tragic as the narrative of a dysfunctional troop led by an alpha male who makes a decision that seals the fate of the entire group plays out.

The film could have been a little bit longer and more detailed to show how one decision leads to many disastrous consequences, and how also a rigid social hierarchy in which a privileged elite monopolises all available resources and denies them to a larger group of animals ends up being the death of them all, as the decreasing size of the group exposes survivors to greater dangers from predators and unexpected emergencies that arise from a changing environment. A warning about the impact of changing climates and what consequences they may bring might be discerned here. Ultimately the lack of dialogue or a voice-over narration, and the simple nature of the plot mean that the film cannot sustain a longer story-line.

Best Friend: a short comment on loneliness, addiction and substituting virtual reality for the real thing

Nicholas Olivieri, Shen Yi, Juliana De Lucca, Varun Nair, David Feliu, “Best Friend” (2019)

In the not-so-distant future, a lonely unnamed man find solace in a drug called Best Friend, implanted into the temple near his left brow, which gives him a stack of virtual friends and girlfriend. So dependent is he on these friends, who can be available 24/7 and offer him plenty of superficial comfort and support but no real love and connection, much less advice and criticism of his addiction, that his face and physical condition display all the hollow-eyed, hollow-cheeked side effects of his psychological and physical dependence. Even his tears are coloured with the yellow chemicals leaking from the implant. On top of that, he is prepared to do anything to sustain his addiction, to the extent that when he needs to get a new batch of the liquid capsules to top up the supply in the implant and finds a queue at the nearest Best Friend store, his “girlfriend” lures him away to an illegal booth in a deserted alley supplying Best Friend at black market prices – but a stranger, equally addicted and just as determined to get his hands on the capsules, follows him, punches him cold, and seizes a shard of glass from the ground in the alley …

A comment on modern society’s need for surrogate reality instead of the real thing, loneliness and alienation, and the addictions such anomie can give rise to, this film works best as a basis for a television series or movie script but no more. The characters represent stereotypes and viewers are not invited to feel much sympathy for them. Only when the stranger appears does the film start to move in a significant direction. The shock comes when the main character is finally named by his friends … only (spoiler alert) they are different friends because he has had to get a new implant … and he appears unaffected by the loss of his previous friends.

The film makes no connection between capitalist ideology and the phenomena it describes which are products of that ideology and its assumptions put in practice: the view of capitalism that humans are essentially materialist and self-interested individuals in competition and conflict with one another, producing a dog-eat-dog world where co-operation and real social connections are treated with suspicion, yet humans still find themselves yearning for something more than the latest gadgets and entertainments. In such a world, fragmentation, isolation and alienation are not only inevitable but encouraged – because if they lead to individuals pursuing remedies that can be commodified, leading to addictions that can also be exploited for profit, they will be.

Memo: a man’s struggle against Alzheimer’s disease and being helpless and dependent on others

Ines Scheiber, Jules Durand, Julien Becquer, Elena Dupressoir, Viviane Guimaraes,Memo” (2017)

A very touching film on Alzheimer’s disease and its impact on sufferers’ daily lives, “Memo” derives its punch from a man’s struggle to preserve his independence and maintain control over his life as his mind is threatened by the creeping onset of the disease. Louis wakes up to find the kitchen and bathroom fixtures almost covered in post-it notes placed by his daughter Nina to remind him of the things he needs to do and that she is coming to have breakfast with him. He discovers the coffee canister is empty and, as if on cue, Nina phones him. They talk briefly and Louis tells Nina the canister is empty. Straight away Nina tells Louis she’ll get the coffee; Louis stubbornly decides he’ll get the coffee himself just to show Nina he can take care of this errand. He goes down to the supermarket and goes through the aisles to search for coffee … and finds himself lost as his visual and spatial memory cloud over in blankness, and he can’t remember where the coffee is kept. He manages to find something and rushes out of the store. To his horror, his mind completely clouds over under the stress of forgetting and being lost, and everything goes blank.

The animation is very clear and does an effective job of suggesting the action of Alzheimer’s disease on a person’s mind by rubbing out (in effect, deconstructing) the animated objects surrounding Louis and devolving everything back into a blank white background. (As if the film had originally been conceived on white paper, which it might well have been.) The film’s point of view closely mirrors Louis’ point of view so the clouding effect is likely to make a strong impression on viewers’ minds. While Louis through his actions is a character easy to sympathise with, the plot is very threadbare and Nina is as sketchy as can be so the film cannot sustain very much more than five minutes of story. Viewers must bear in mind though that this animation was created by young undergraduate students at the Gobelins animation school. More experienced animators might have introduced a sub-plot in which Louis comes to resent being dependent on Nina, and Nina perhaps feeling irritated at Louis’ peevishness and also a bit resentful at having to look after her father while other siblings shirk their obligations.

The straightforward, realistic visual style of the animation contrasts strongly with the fading of the objects and backgrounds of the film. We feel Louis’ terror and confusion as his world is overcome by the chaos of nothingness. The film makes its point quickly as the characters beat back the disease with familiar routine and more post-it notes – but for how much longer until Nina is forced to find round-the-clock care for her father, we don’t know.

The Mascot: a puppet dog’s mission of self-sacrifice results in an amazing masterpiece of stop-motion animation

Wladyslaw Starewicz, “The Mascot / Fétiche Mascotte ” (1933)

An amazing and brilliant short work of stop-motion animation, “The Mascot” is one of several masterpieces made by Russian-Polish animator over a long period from 1909 to 1965, the year of his death. Starewicz began his career in Kaunas, then a part of Russian Poland, before moving to Moscow in 1911 and working there until 1918. After the Bolshevik Revolution in November 2017, Starewicz fled to Yalta in Crimea, and moved to Paris in 1920 where he spent the rest of his life making stop-motion animated films, short and feature-length, his career spanning the silent-film period and films with sound.

This brief 25-minute film was intended to be the first film in a series featuring a dog puppet called Duffy. Riffing on themes of self-sacrifice and the search for goodness in an uncertain and chaotic world, the film follows Duffy on an odyssey that takes him quite literally through hell. Duffy comes to life when a woman toy-maker, caring for an invalid daughter, weeps and a teardrop falls onto his body. He contrives to hop into bed with the child and manages to hear that she wants an orange, before the toy-maker mother packs him into a box along with several other toys and they are all put into the back of a car to be taken to a toy-shop. The other toys, which include a ballerina, a clown and a thuggish tramp already living in a sort of menage a trois at the toy-maker’s apartment, see their chance to escape and bolt through a hole the thug tramp makes in the box leading to a gap in the car’s boot. Only Duffy decides to remain in the car. The toys tumble out into the street with various results: the ballerina ends up in the gutter and the clown no sooner hits the dirt than he is decapitated by another car. Ouch!

Later sold to a car owner who hangs him from his rear-view mirror, Duffy falls out of the car through an unexpected accident. He seizes the opportunity to obtain an orange for the little invalid girl and then tries to retrace his journey back to the toy-maker but not before falling in with a devil character who holds a grand and grotesque party with many guests, several of whom are the toys who had escaped from the car. The thug character treats his ballerina amour roughly and violently, and even stabs his devil host. Duffy loses the orange a few times before he is able to escape with it from the party. The other toys chase him down the road but Duffy is saved in the nick of time by the toy-maker’s army of toy soldiers. He is able to fulfill his mission but his reward and joy turn out to be all too brief in an unexpected plot twist that must have appealed to Starewicz’s dark sense of humour but is likely to upset children and those who have already warmed to Duffy’s bravery and persistence.

The animation is excellent: the various characters move smoothly and well, and their faces are very expressive, even if they can’t talk much. The toys move in the way viewers might expect them to move, that is to say, stiffly at times, though Duffy is able to run bipedally on his hind-legs and kick his orange like a football when the need arises! Clever editing and fast-paced backgrounds make the chase scene thrilling and tense, with the toys racing from left to right on the screen before the soldiers push them right to left. The nightmarish party, straight out of Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Devil and Margarita”, scenes of death and gory violence, and Duffy’s continued suffering even in the midst of triumph and joy rule this film out as a children’s film.

The narrative does linger too long in the second half of the film which is dominated by the devil’s party. One might have thought that negotiating his way through Paris car and foot traffic would be sufficient hard work for Duffy but no, Starewicz decided to add a most incongruous mediaeval fantasy plot twist. Perhaps at this point Starewicz was a bit too carried away by what he could do with his puppet characters; the gags in this part of the film can be distasteful for some viewers, and Duffy’s skin and orange are saved by a deus ex machina device. The subplot involving the ballerina, the clown and the thug is resolved, but tragically. On the plus side, the film is not at all sentimental in its portrayal of Duffy’s journey and mission.

The film deserves to be better known for its technological advances and the potential it demonstrates in the genre of stop-motion animation at the time of its making.

Claire Darling: slow film about memory, heritage and past pain leading to a big bang

Julie Bertuccelli, “Claire Darling / La derniere folie de Claire Darling” (2018)

On the first day of summer in a small village somewhere in France, an elderly woman, Claire (Catherine Deneuve) – heir to a mining fortune – wakes up and is convinced that this day is the last day of her life. She arranges for local men to cart all her furniture and possessions into the front courtyard – including all the objects, dolls, knick-knacks and objets d’art she has collected over the years – where they are to be sold in a giant garage sale to the entire village community. Everyone rocks up to gawp at the objects on sale and the amazingly low prices offered. A local woman Martine (Laure Calamy) who happens to be an old school-friend of Claire’s daughter Marie, contacts the daughter and informs her of what her mother is doing. Marie (Chiara Mastroianni) immediately races over to try to stop the garage sale from going ahead but not before several major objects and prized pieces of furniture have gone.

This premise serves as an opportunity to explore dementia in elderly people, the effect of ageing on people’s memories and how memory serves to establish and maintain people’s identities and relationships with others past and present. The garage sale and the various objects that it emphasises – most of all, an elaborate elephant clock and a reproduction of Monet’s “Water Lilies” painting – hint at various past episodes in Claire Darling’s life (in which a younger Claire is played by Alice Taglioni), in particular how her son and husband died before their time and the lies that led to the rift between Claire and her daughter. Not a few sub-plots arise – in particular a sub-plot that hints at Claire and the local village priest becoming attracted to each other, and one that hints at Marie renewing a friendship (and finding romance) with local gendarme Amir (Samir Guesmi) – of which even fewer come to resolution or completion. The objects being sold themselves hold memories and guard secrets – most of all, the secret of where Claire’s lost ring has gone – and the garage sale itself becomes symbolic not only of Claire’s possible dementia but of her own life since the unhappy break-up of her family decades ago.

An alternate view of the garage sale might be that, since Claire is convinced that her life is to end that day, the sale of the objects is her way of preparing to die by divesting herself of all that has burdened her, psychologically and physically, throughout life. Although we never find out why Claire has always needed to collect ornaments, books, artwork and furniture, or why she hides precious dolls and toys in a garden niche, we can surmise that this hoarding gives her the security that she needed throughout her life but has never had. Over the years though, the security has become a burden that eventually compels her to live as a recluse surrounded by all her hoarding.

The film unfolds slowly with flashbacks to the past deliberately mixed into the present to demonstrate how past memories continually intrude into and influence present-day events. As a result, while the immersion into the French countryside can be very appealing (if rather deliberate and kitsch – there are few signs of poverty and no Gilets Jaunes protesting against President Emmanuel Macron’s austerity politics slowly killing French society), the action is drawn out and most characters do little more than run around in circles. An opportunity to present French village life as it might have been in the past and contrast it with the present – with the soulless efficiency of the city encroaching on and destroying what individuality and quirkiness remain – is missed.

The film’s climax, when it comes, when Claire expects her premonition to be fulfilled, arrives unexpectedly and suddenly, with most of the recluse’s secrets and issues still not fully resolved with Marie – or the rest of the village community for that matter. The Big Bang ending is surreal, akin to the famous conclusion of Michelangelo Antonioni’s cult film “Zabriskie Point”, in which everything flows back into the river of life. Far from preparing for death, Claire was preparing to live again.

The Happy Prince: a character study of Oscar Wilde in exile and artistic decline

Rupert Everett, “The Happy Prince” (2018)

A labour of love, of much research over the years on the life and work of Irish-British writer Oscar Wilde, is this character study by Rupert Everett who not only directs the film but wrote the script and plays Wilde as well. The plot is skeletal to the point of non-existence and follows Wilde’s last years after his release from prison in 1897 for engaging in homosexual activities with younger, lower-class men: he goes into self-exile in France and reunites with Lord Alfred Douglas aka Bosie (Colin Morgan) despite the latter and his father the Marquess of Queensberry having been a cause of Wilde’s downfall and eventual imprisonment. Against the objections of his friends Reggie Turner (Colin Firth) and Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas), Wilde flees to Naples with Bosie where they spend lavishly on “gentlemen’s parties” but are forced to separate when their respective families cut off their allowances for continuing to see each other. Wilde returns to Paris where, depressed and alone, spurned by polite society, he finds solace in absinthe and in befriending two young brothers, the older of whom becomes his rent-boy. To both brothers, especially the younger, Wilde tells them the story of the Happy Prince. From then on, the narrative trajectory is on a downward slide, as Wilde writes very little and his health declines from a combination of meningitis and an old prison injury to his head flaring up again.

Wilde’s tumultuous and colourful three years in exile contrast with the restricted life his crippled wife Constance (Emily Watson) and their two young sons are forced to lead, to avoid public scrutiny and scorn. After Constance’s death, her relatives make sure the children never see their father again and this causes Wilde anguish. Another sub-plot that stays mostly undeveloped is the rivalry between Bosie and Ross for Wilde’s affections which continues even at Wilde’s funeral.

Everett’s portrayal of Wilde with all his flamboyance, his wit and selfish appetites is a passionate and heartfelt tour-de-force that anchors the entire film and carries it all the way to the end. While his punishment was severe and undeserved, and his health was affected by imprisonment to the extent that his life expectancy was severely reduced, Wilde is determined to live his life to the full in the way he wants, even if this means losing access to his children and possibly ending up in a poorhouse. He does become very religious but even there his newfound Catholicism must take second place to his pursuit of hedonism and aestheticism. At the same time he is persecuted by the very people who used to laud his plays and other writings, and his ability to live how he wants depends very much on his in-laws who control his and Constance’s purse-strings. By the way he lives his life, Wilde calls attention to the hypocrisy of the society that alternately flatters and spurns him, and ultimately destroys him. It is not difficult to see why Wilde is drawn to Catholicism: he sees in the suffering and martyrdom of Jesus Christ his own persecution, and from that obtains comfort and learns to accept his suffering as part of his destiny.

The other actors know when the spotlight is on them and when they should get out of Everett’s way. Watson is a pleasure to watch even if most of her roles these days barely challenge her abilities and are of the motherly support stereotype. Firth underplays his role as Turner and Tom Wilkinson all but steals every scene he appears in as the priest who baptises Wilde.

The film emphasises Wilde’s acceptance of the humiliations that come with his celebrity and subsequent notoriety, and his determination to live his life as he sees fit, however shallow and self-centred his decisions might be. He learns to find beauty and radiance in even the most squalid and impoverished situations. The only issue I have with the film is that Victorian society which condemns Wilde and casts him off for being true to his nature and living his life to the full, but treats him in such a way that his health is ruined and his life cut short, does not come in for very much criticism.

The Image Book: a demanding critique on the role of film in contemporary Western society

Jean-Luc Godard, “The Image Book / Le Livre d’Image” (2018)

At 84 minutes, in no way is this a long film, yet it’s far more demanding of one’s attention in so many different aspects than more commercial films that are at least half as long. This film works on so many levels and probably needs to be seen at least a few times for Godard’s message/s to sink in.

On one level, the film questions and criticises the dominant role of cinema as escapist entertainment in an age where so many technologies and trends that have developed at the same time and in parallel or even enmeshed together with cinema have had destructive effects on humanity around the world: modern warfare, the development of weapons capable of destroying all life on earth, propaganda, societies dependent on technology (including cinema) and materialism to keep people distracted and unaware of their repression by Deep States. On a second level, in its use of snippets of other directors’ films, film audio soundtracks, music and paintings, Godard pays homage to directors and films that he may consider significant: I managed to pick out Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Salo”, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” and Georges Franju’s “Blood of the Beasts” among the films referenced. By juxtaposing audio soundtracks from other films with the snippets of film organised collage-style, Godard creates a new narrative that, among other things, criticises Western viewpoints of Arabic-language peoples and their cultures and histories, and invites viewers to question how their opinions and worldviews have been moulded and manipulated by film in all its variety, documentary and newsreel film as well as film drama. This narrative includes a completely fictional story about the despotic ruler of an imaginary Arab country called Dofa which has no resources – not even oil or natural gas to speak of – but which lack does not stop this ruler from dreaming of dominating all the Arabian Gulf oil states.

There is much beauty, a lot of it deliberately over-coloured or overlit in ways to make the film look psychedelic and hallucinatory, as if to call attention to the power of film and film narrative to keep people in a heightened state of addiction and to change their neural networks (not always for the better). For all its experimentation, the film does present a linear narrative based on the five fingers of the hand – because the hand does much if not most of the work of the imagination and creation – with each chapter in the narrative representing some form of motion or conflict: water, trains, warfare, the law and the Western view of the Middle East.

The film’s collage nature and confrontational message make it difficult viewing for most people. I must confess I did find the middle section of the film quite heavy and tiring.

Last Year at Marienbad: a comic and often repetitive satire on the empty lives of the wealthy

Alain Resnais, “Last Year at Marienbad / L’Année dernière à Marienbad” (1961)

At times hilarious, and at other times maddeningly boring and repetitive, this film is notable for its deliberately ambiguous narrative, in which time and space are non-linear, and characters may be coming or going, living or dying at once – or have done so in the past, or will do so in the future. The whole film seems to take place in a hermetic dream-like world and characters are continually repeating themselves, in their thoughts, obsessions and memories as well as in their speech and behaviour.

The plot is very simple – but from this apparent simplicity, myriad possibilities arise and the film attempts to accommodate them all. In an opulent, baroquely decorated hotel, set in a converted country estate, where wealthy couples socialise, a man (Giorgio Albertazzi), known only as X, approaches a woman (Delphine Seyrig), known as A, and tells her that they had met exactly the year before in Marienbad. The woman has no memory of their ever having met but X insists that they have and that she told him to wait a year while she decided on whether to elope with him or stay with her husband, M (Sasha Pitoev). X constantly tries to remind her of their romance while she continually rebuffs him. In the meantime, M asserts his authority over X and various other men by beating them all at the same card game over and over. M may very well be a gangster or a spy. The various possibilities that arise in the plot include a rape, a murder and two figures running away together in the dead of night.

Through flashbacks, edits that jump from one time or location to another, and through repeated conversations and events, the film explores the relationships between the three characters. Beyond this though, the main characters remain undeveloped and mysterious, even a little sinister. The rest of the cast, playing the hotel guests, are robotic in their actions, expressionless and lacking emotion, and repeat their actions and speeches over and over. In this respect, the film may be seen as a criticism of the empty lives of the wealthy, condemned to living in an eternal present where there is no political, cultural or social historical context they can relate to and which would give their lives meaning and direction – because they have deliberately sealed themselves from reality.

The film’s cinematography emphasises the self-contained universe of the hotel: the camera glides over details in the elaborate furnishings; the architectural trimmings, architraves, arches and other extravagances; and tracks through the labyrinthine corridors towards bedrooms that are exactly the same. The gardens surrounding the hotel are laid out in a strict geometrical order, and the pools of water are mostly still and serene, but beyond the hotel’s boundaries, the forest is unruly and chaotic. The use of edits and panning conveys something of the sterility in which the characters seem to be trapped. The organ music is loud, droning and repetitive.

Though the plot and its events, and the entire nature of the hotel universe and its inhabitants, might suggest “Last Year …” should be a horror film, the whole creation proceeds with a light touch and the po-faced characters seem not to take themselves very seriously. There is plenty of comedy in the scenes in which M challenges X and others to play his card game. Even the accident in which X falls off a balustrade and part of it collapses on him is played for laughs in its deadpan minimalism. The most sinister elements in the film – M himself, the Gothic organ, even the hotel and its zombie cast – can be seen as very comic.

Climax: French society in microcosm with all its stresses, anxieties, hidden secrets and a dark puppet-master

Gaspar Noe, “Climax” (2018)

In the hands of Argentine-French director Gaspar Noe, a story about a group of young dancers hired to be part of a dance troupe to tour the US becomes a launching pad for a downward exploratory spiral into the deepest, most depraved chasms of human psychology. The young cast of hip-hop hopefuls, each individually interviewed and eagerly expressing their ambitions to take the dance world by storm, rehearse in an old school building for several days and then hold a party to celebrate. Too late they discover that the bowl of sangria punch has been spiked with LSD and they all succumb to the drug’s hallucinogenic and other more serious side effects. As the music throbs and pounds in the background, and coloured lights flash and pulse overhead, the young dancers’ psychological barriers and inhibitions give way, any desires, prejudices and grudges they hold for or against one another come out into the open, and they explode into physical and sexual violence.

Even though it’s not a long film at 96 minutes, “Climax” nevertheless can feel like an endurance test, due to the relentless, in-your-face intensity of the dancers’ suffering and helplessness under the influence of acid. It is cleverly structured in three parts: the first part, consisting of the dancers’ audition interviews, establishes who the youngsters are and their hopes and feelings about the great adventure they’re embarking on; the second part of the film, shot in one single take, showcases their energetic free-form krumping style, followed by a succession of quickly edited pieces where various dancers converse in pairs about others in their group; the third part of the film, when the dancers realise they have been drugged, is the most nightmarish and technically inventive section as the camera closely follows individual dancers, smoothly switching from one to another as they pass each other in dimly lit corridors or on the spinning dance floor. A definite narrative hierarchy is established, suggestive of a transition from stability or life through a portal into chaos and death, and investigating in cursory ways issues that evoke anxiety in modern human society: unwanted pregnancies, abortions, suicide, incest, mutilation, ostracism, death. Like the ritual it is, sacrifices are demanded by this narrative, and sacrifices in all their dreadful tragedy there are.

The cinematography may be disorienting, with the camera taking bird’s-eye views or hanging upside down, and usually following characters closely behind as they run and stumble for help, but the scenes are never jumpy or jerky, and the picture is always clear. I never felt nauseous at any time while watching the film (and I have had problems in the past watching films like “The Blair Witch Project” where the camera often jerked about). The intense, garish red and green lighting adds to the general sense of unease, disorientation, paranoia and the hellish surroundings of a school building that has seen better days.

The ethnic and religious diversity of the dancers, their varying sexual orientations, the French flag as a backdrop behind the DJ spinning the vinyl, and the anxieties, prejudices and fears the young people express as they are overcome by the combination of alcohol and acid may all symbolise 21st-century French society in microcosm, with all its hidden issues, stresses and problems, whose causes lie far back in France’s dark colonial or politically and socially conservative, often repressive past, and which threatens the delicate social balance that (now as never before) might break at any moment. One might discern that the LSD represents dark forces in French society – it has its own Deep State that may be at once separate from and linked to other nations’ Deep States – that manipulate different groups in France and pit them against one another in constant conflict and violence, all so they are easier to control and can never discover who their true oppressors are. The revelation at the end of the film of who is responsible for spiking the sangria suggests as much.

The film’s end credits are placed at and near the beginning of the film so that when it finishes, viewers are suddenly and unexpectedly thrust back into cold reality. One does not know when the nightmare really ends … or has it really just begun?

Normandy Nude: a light-hearted if flat comedy with a message about exploiting people and land for profit

Philippe le Guay, “Normandy Nude / Normandy Nue” (2018)

One of a distinctly French genre of comedy films – Cedric Klapisch’s “Back to Burgundy” is another – in which particular regions of France are highlighted for their rural landscapes, their industries and the cultures and histories associated with them, “Normandy Nude” is a light-hearted comedy that rolls out smoothly and comfortably if a wee bit too slickly. The particular social issues connected to these regions may be highlighted as well, even if in a fairly superficial way. In this film, set in rural Normandy, a village dependent on the dairying and beef production industries is struggling to survive: banks have foreclosed on farmers’ properties, some farmers have committed suicide and the train service to Paris has been cut. The village folk and the farming community have been blockading roads in the hope of gaining local and national media attention but the news media briefly flits over their plight. And then something unexpected happens.

Dairy farmer and long-term mayor Georges Balbuzard, nicknamed Balbu (Francois Cluzet), is approached by a famous American photographer-artist, Newman (Toby Jones) – a character clearly based on US photographer Spencer Tunick, famous for his large-scale photographs of crowds posing naked – and his assistant Bradley (Vincent Regan) who propose to use a local field, Chollet Field, as the backdrop to his next project. Newman wants 200 villagers to feature in the photo: the catch is, they all have to pose nude. Balbu sees Newman’s offer as an ingenious way to gain national publicity for his village so he spends much of the rest of the film trying to persuade the more conservative villagers to participate in the project.

The film is padded out by various sub-plots involving individual villagers and farmers and their various conflicts and secrets that come out into the open by Newman’s proposal: local butcher Roger, married to the curvaceous former Miss Calvados winner Gisele, frets that if his wife participates in the proposal, she will become the cynosure of all lustful men’s eyes and tries to stop her participation; two farmers with claims to Chollet Field nearly end up derailing Newman’s project; a young man returns to the village to close down his father’s photography studio and camera shop and ends up falling in love with local lass Charlotte; a family of Parisian city-slickers who have moved to the area struggle to come to terms with the isolation, the social and religious conservatism, and the allergies caused by local pollen. The local pharmacist disapproves of Newman’s project and complains to regional bureaucrats. With these and other sub-plots, the wonder is that the villagers come to life at all, and indeed most characters remain flat stereotypes. Cluzet at least holds his own as the mostly jovial mayor who bounces from one part of his realm trying to get support for Newman and at least hold back simmering frustrations and enmities enough for the project to succeed.

The film addresses too many topical political and social issues at once in a series of vignettes and skits to be convincing, and its general presentation of these topics, ranging from the destruction of France’s rural industries by a remote European Union bureaucracy and regulations to climate change and the presence of carcinogenic chemical preservatives in beef, is so superficial as to verge on cheap exploitation for laughs. It attempts satire in the treatment of the Parisians who try to ape country traditions. Probably the only issue the film succeeds in delineating to any great extent is whether French assets – the land, the people who populate it, their own bodies even, not to mention their culture and history – can and should be exploited as commodities for profit, and forced to compete with one another for money in the form of government subsidies. The film’s continued treatment of Newman’s project, the village’s response to it and how the villagers deal with their underlying conflicts that the project inadvertently exposes, tells where director Philippe le Guay’s opinion falls. While the film’s conclusion is left open and might dissatisfy most viewers, the message is clear that the villagers have resolved to deal with their most pressing problems in an open-minded way that invites compromise, reconciliation and creativity.