Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Mar 14, 2023 8:08 pm 
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A boy's life in rural French foster care

Astrakan concerns Samuel (Mirko Giannini), a boy of 13 in foster care in Le Morvan. This is a poor region of France where people raise money by taking on paid foster care. Such is the case of Marie (Jehnny Beth) and C. (Clément: Bastien Bouillon), who receive money for raising Samuel (they have a boy of their own). Depressoville's account is no-holds barred string of incidents without fanfare, from good to bad. It's a rural situation. We don't know what Sam's past is except that his father was shot and killed "accidentally" by the police and about his mother nothing is said. The situation is fundamentally flawed for the adopted child. Jean Genet was raised this way, by an older couple that it's said was very kind; he still engaged in a lot of petty thievery and irregular behavior. This is a poignant subject that allows us to see boyhood and family life with new eyes. One French critic called this film "ambitious but maladroit." Maybe; but with the maladroitness comes originality and surprises.

Sam has some nice moments and some bad ones. Marie is not always uncaring, but C. beats him more than once. Hélène (Lorine Delin), a neighbor girl his age, invites him over. She shows him her dad's secret girly mag and he bolts. Another time she seduces him with a risqué movie and undresses, he makes out with her, her father comes in, and he gets blamed, and beaten by C. Marie puts up the money for him to go to ski camp (viewers may remember Claude Miller's 1989 Classe de neige), and the girl kisses him on the bus coming back. It's a great time; but it soon ends when Hélène invites him to a movie and on the way he's menaced by some rude boys. In the cinema they attack him and the girl bolts and later ditches Samuel for one of the boys. Meanwhile Samuel goes to gymnastics class - another thing Marie, with some difficulty, gets together the money for - and he's good. In the competition he takes second place.

He smokes when he gets the chance, and openly. He has a problem with defecation. He can't go and instead soils underpants. There is trouble with Marie's brother Luc (Théo Costa-Marini), who is damaged in some way and lives with their parents some distance away. When Samuel pulls a nasty trick, she takes him to stay with her parents and he muss sleep with Luc, whose pedophle tendencies he has become aware of. He runs home the next day.

They take him to church; everybody's there. At Luc's place an old man teaches him to say the Rosary and says he's a "good boy." Well, he's not always a good boy. Through a final montage reviewing earlier moments and culminating in a riverside picnic where Marie takes a black baby sheep to her bare breast, thanks to a long passage of lovely high volume sacral choral music of the "Agnus Dei" from Bach's B Minor Mass, the film takes on a quality partly surreal, partly perhaps even Catholic. There is definitely a sense in which the film confronts love, sin, and forgiveness.

Astrakan examines a boy's life and in a sense life itself in a fresh, raw way; "maladroit," if you will: there is a little of the early Bruno Dumont here. A French critic cited on AlloCiné, Michaël Delavaud, speaks in of the writing as "zigzagging deftly between its violence and its softness." This keeps us feeling surprised. The actors and settings feel very authentic and there is a classic and timeless feel. Neil Young in his review forScreen Daily called this debut "an engrossing exercise in emphatic humanism, unhurried and uninflected."

Astrakan 104 mins., debuted at Locarno Aug. 9, 2022, with nine other festivals listed on IMDb. Screened for this review as part of the New Directors/New Films series of MoMA and Film at LincolnCenter (Mar. 29-Apr. 14, 2023).

Thursday, March 30
8:30pm, MoMA T2 (Q&A with David Depesseville)
Saturday, April 1
3:30pm, FLC Walter Reade (Q&A with David Depesseville)

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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