Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Mar 02, 2017 6:21 pm 
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A superficial picture of New Age togetherness

The trouble with Bonheur Académie/Happiness Academy, a docudrama about a Raëlian summer gathering at a hotel complex in Croatia, is how superficial it is. And because it's sort of faked, we only get to "know" a handful of "participants" who are cast members: the movie doesn't look in on a wide spectrum except where they introduce themselves on mike at an early gathering.

And what do they all do? Listen to Raël, Claude Vorilhon, the white-bearded, Geneva-based 70-year-old cult leader, the "man in white," talking from a remote hookup on two big flat screens to the gathered participants. This gentleman, who likes laughing and happiness and has been at this for over 40 years, allegedly talked to outer space creatures who set up planet earth. But there is only passing reference to these beliefs. Most of what we see are rituals you might find in various New Age-y gatherings, people playing get-together games, talking about themselves in a New Age-y way, declaring their love of each other, stripping and touching, humming, singing, dancing and swimming, having a supervised good time if you like this kind of feel-good summer camp. It's sort of like a commune without the hard work and poverty.

A peculiarity of Raëlianism is it favors sex. There are several unusual wrinkles. Participants are encouraged to wear one of a whole line of colored wrist bands to show what they're up for, from red (open for lots of all kinds of sex) to white (prefer to abstain from sex altogether). In between are gay or bi, cuddle but no sex. Raël gives a pep talk encouraging men to open up to their feminine side and women to their masculine one - and this time they really mean it literally: that night everybody disguises in his or her own particular version of the opposite sex, and dancing, or flirting, at a party they mix in gay or reverse-sex play-unions. The next day they talk about the experience. The characters who emerge include , Lily and Dominique, who seem to be vying for the favours of a Parisian singer, Arnaud Fleurent Didier. But these are not vivid portraits, just people who are in the limelight for a while.

Moments like the sex-switch night show this film might have been interesting: this activity seems genuinely transformative for some participants, perhaps quite troubling for others, suggesting this aspect of Raël-think could be controversial or revelatory. But for some reason, whether through mere ineptness or our of a need to stay on the right side of the Raëlians, who were somehow the filmmaker's hosts, this is a timid effort and it never gets deep enough either into the ideas or experiences touched upon. And while this feels like a giant singles event, we don't see any sex happening.

If you want to find out something about Raëlians, see Wikipedia. It points out that they used to favor a symbol that combines the Star of David and the swastika, but the obvious offense this causes multiple groups has led them to switch to a star-and-swirl combination.


But here, in the middle of the two big screens Raël booms forth from, the symbol is the swastika-Star of David one.


Is this a parody or pro-Raëlian propaganda? It never really quite makes up its mind, or maybe it is propaganda, but the whole thing plays as parody anyway. As apprentice film critic Lucille Manent says in her critique from the Bordeaux festival on the French-language festival review website ACCRÉDS, the filmmakers' neutral stance just doesn't work because of the aforementioned superficiality.

This film comes out in France 28 Jun. 2017. It's classified on AlloCiné as a mixture of documentary and "comédie dramatique."

Happiness Academy/Bonheur Academie, 75 mins., debuted at the Festival of Independent Film of Bordeaux 2016. It will have a French theatrical release 28 Jun. 2017. It was screened for this review as part of FSLC-MoMA's New Directors/New Films series (15-26 Mar. 2017).


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