Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Mar 11, 2018 2:14 am 
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Women without men

The film, which debuted at San Sebastian last September, was favorably reviewed there in Hollywood Reporter by Neil Young, who found "seeds of plentiful promise" in it for both its debutantes, lead actress Pauline Burlet and director Marine Francen. This is an historical drama, focused on a young woman of marriageable age in a small town in the Alps in 1851, when that town is cruelly robbed of all its men following the repression of an uprising that leads to the town being cut off. The women make the unusual pledge that if any man arrives, he will become a "semeur," a sower of seed, for all of them so they may bear children. This story, based on a sketchy but poetically worded text found by the filmmaker (who had to invent the characters except one woman), seems implausible, almost like science fiction. But what Francen does with it is impressive, with images out ofJean-François Millet, as the women are beautifully seen hand-harvesting grain, and situations out of D.H. Lawrence, with the emphasis on passionate feelings and simple, intense sexuality and love. The images are simple - there isn't great variety - but they are beautiful, to fit with the simplicity and purity of the needs and feelings expressed.

This is an economical production. The most challenging scene to shoot comes at the outset when Francen shows us soldiers of Napoléon III rounding up the men of this village and leading them away. For most of the film they don't know if the men are alive or dead or if any of them will ever come back. Focus is on the hand harvesting of the grain, and discussions between the women, with a few emerging. Foremost is Violette (Pauline Burlet). It is she whose text the movie is based on. All the activities are "among women." They can bare their legs if they want: there are no men to find it indecent. In this atmosphere of boldness the idea of using any man who comes along to get them pregnant, so the village won't die out.

According to Neil Young, the source is a 38-page volume called L'homme semence ("The Seed Man") published in 2006, written in 1919 by Violette Ailhaud when she was in her eighties, left to her female relatives to be in their hands in 1952, a century after the events she recounts. As Francen has said, the mid-nineteenth century and towns decimated by the forces of the emperor aren't a time and a place about which much is known.

The Sower has a quality of the simple and elemental found in French films like Frédéric Fonteyne's Gilles Wife, in which I, and Roger Ebert (who wrote a lovely review of it) discovered the face of Emmanuelle Devos (and it was an autumn in Paris when the young Clovis Cornillac, who played Gilles, shone). The elements here are classic and the feel is intense and physical without being realistic. The mountainous region of The Cévennes acquires a glowing luminosity in the cinematography of Alain Duplantier.

After the women, or some of them - but it must get around - make their, at first rather jocular, pact, a man does appear, who says his name is Jean and that he is a blacksmith (Alban Lenoir). He is bearded, robust, and thirty-nine. One woman says she'd hoped for someone younger. But they acknowledge that he is a good-looking man. Circumstances lead him to be most connected with Violette. He has a place to himself. They make it clear how welcome he is, but not their plan. Violette brings him food, they form a connection, and they make love, and fall in love. It becomes clear that he has turned up because he is wandering and is in hiding from something. Thus his status is uncertain. But he stays.

The issue becomes the clash between Jean's "function" for the village women, and the strong love that has developed between him and Violette. There must be much sacrifice on all sides. Violette is also the only woman - now the only person - in the village who can read and write. She becomes a teacher for the children but more importantly she and Jean, who also is literate (is he really a blacksmith?) and they bond and make love over reading poetry of Victor Hugo in bed. This is one of the movie's most original touches.

The movie shines, literally, with its many scenes of sunshiny work in the hay, which may be sweaty and grueling but seem mainly idyllic, and really more cheerful and light and unsentimental than Jean-François Millet's iconic images. Some may think of The Beguiled and Black Narcissus; for me D.H. Lawrence was the best association. The thought of science fiction brings up a certain implausibility, a lack of relatableness that is The Sower's weakest point. But that there is style and remarkable boldness and accomplishment here is absolutely certain

The Sower/Le semeur, 100 mins., debuted at San Sebastián, winning the valuable New Directors Prize there, and opened in Paris 17 Nov. 2017 when it received lukewarm reviews (AlloCiné press rating 3.1), but Les Inrockuptibles' Serge Kaganski admired its lack of the heaviness usual with costume dramas and thought it "a first film of a proud and stubborn originality."

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