Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Mar 11, 2018 4:55 pm 
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The dilemma of a small dairy farmer in a cruel world

The film, originally given the unappetizing English title Bloody Milk, is about a young French small dairy farmer. Pierre Chavanges (Swann Arlaud, whose sensitive, anxious face the camera loves, and who thoroughly takes possession of his role) is bachelor in his mid-thirties who has taken over the farm from his aging (but still ever-present) parents. Little ready to consider the romantic interests of Angélique (the arresting India Hair), the local lady baker pushed upon him by his mother, he lives and breathes the herd 24/7. Pierre treats his cows like persons, and calls them all by their names. In the surreal opening scene we see him literally waking up with the house full of cows. It's just a dream, but shows this filmmaker has a subtle flair. The sequence is the better for being understated. It introduces a movie of quiet power and conviction.

Pierre discovers to his horror that his herd is becoming infected with a dangerous disease - "the Belgian disease," hemorrhagic fever, which is spreading locally, and tries to hide it, because if he let it be known, the health department would order the destruction of the entire herd and he would be ruined. His sister Pascale (Sara Giraudeau) is a veterinarian, which could be an additional danger, or a source of support. She is initially reassuring. But then, if she finds out his suspicion was correct, he's in trouble.

Petit Paysan was reviewed at Cannes for Variety by Pamela Pianezza. She notes that the tension "mounts during the first two-thirds of the movie," but is hard to sustain thereafter. He kills and burns and buries the first two infected cows. As Pianezza notes the first cow "execution" is "shot like a murder scene," and at this point the film has the air of a thriller; this is "one of the film's strongest moments." But there are other strong moments, and great tension is created when he has killed the second cow and he is interrupted by his friends whom he makes go bowling to get them away from the farm, but they keep him up till two a.m. Everything he does comes to seem suspicious.

Charuel has some trouble sustaining the suspense toward the end of the film, in Pianezza's view, but she still feels the script (co-written with Le Pepe of Love at First Fight/Les combattants, "keeps its promises, portraying a desperate dairy farmer who, while not as complex or explosive as the one Mattias Schoenaerts embodied in Bullhead, remains a compelling and rarely seen character in French cinema." The son of dairly farmers who might have taken over their farm as Pierre does but chose to attend La Fémis instead, Charuel knows whereof he speaks and this film is a labor of love. He draws extensively on his own rural French upbringing for the film, and in fact shot it on his parent's land. This aspect brings to mind Francis Lee's excellent recent film God's Own Country shot in his native Yorkshire near where he still lives. I loved this film, even if it may seem to fizzle out a bit toward the end.

The title, Petit paysan ("Small Peasant [farmer]") points to the fact that Pierre is part of a dying breed, a small farmer struggling to survive in a world where agribusinesses have taken over. If there is an air of desperation about Pierre's plight and the situation he is in is horrible, it's just a ramping up of the situation many family farmers face.

Petit Paysan, also known as Bloody Milk, 90 mins., debuted in Cannes Critics Week May 2017; also in a half dozen other international festivals, opened in French cinemas 30 Aug. 2017, and was then widely reviewed, with an AlloCiné press rating of 4.1. Screened for this review as part of the New York Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, Mar. 2018.
Showtimes March 11 1:00 PM
March 14 4:00 PM

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