Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Apr 11, 2023 12:01 pm 
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An arty, impressionistic sea journal meets with Denis Lavant and the ghosts of Claire Denis's most famous film

Ida (Angeliki Papoulia of Dogtooth) lives a forever-in-movement life on an ocean-going sailing yacht with a crew of five and unspecified passengers. They include Vlad (Vladimir Vulevic), Farouk (Ferhat Mouhali), Carlos (Gustavo Jahn) and Mauro (Mauro Soares). We see them join her in a typically long, slow enigmatic opening passage. In Marseille, the clandestine male world of the French Foreign Legion (the military service branch of the French army founded in 1831 with the aim of integrating foreign nationals into the French army, currently including regular mercenaries from outside France, but forbidden to women), catches Ida's attention: she listens to a story, passes a facility, and hears a legion song wafting over a fence. Thus she, apparently, decides to trace the legion's tracks across the Mediterranean.

Mind you, we learn next to nothing specific about the French Foreign Legion; and Whittmann is more interested in crew members playing Go or pressing leaves in a book or translating a poem to each other than the mechanics of sailing a ship. There is a shot of starting the engine; another of sanding a pulley; but we never see a sail. She and her crew sail from Marseille to arrive, after much meandering exploration of sound and sea imagery, at Sidi Bel Abbes in Algeria, the historic original headquarters of the Légion Étrangère that it was forced to abandon at the time of Algerian independence.

Borders fade away as life at sea produces a special kind of mutual understanding or hypnotic complicity. If you go with the mood and breathe long and deeply, eventually the magic of this film may get to you. Its power is in the filmmaker's obvious fascination with everything aqueous and her time spent on this sailboat (did she hire it, for her crew of actors?), and above all in the intense bath of sound that fills the theater from first to last. Save for a little singing, there is no music, and there is precious little conversation, no effort at character development, exposition, or narrative. Ambient sound by Nika Sound utterly dominates from first to last and is in various degrees immersive and even outstrips the use of 16mm film imagery as a defining element.

Helena Whitman is no stranger to the world of blue and the contemplative quests generated by being in its waters. Her first film, Drift (2017), also found in the ocean fertile territory for visual experimentation. It concerned two friends who spend a weekend in the North Sea, one of whom returns to her family in Argentina, while the other decides to live near the ocean. It showed her ability to make a modernist and contemplative film, while also establishing connections with 19th-century German romanticism which permitted her to express strong, mysterious and deep feelings.

In her new nautical epic, Whittmann once again proposes an abstract ritual of immersion in the waters of conceptual and sensual cinema in a speculative and revealing drama about a sailing voyage to Algeria that stands out both in content and form. Warning: this is an enigmatic piece and a slow-mover, more a succession of set pieces than a coherent story, though it is linked by the sailing ship and its voyage. There is engagement and play with cinema's past and colonial past, and along the way, space, experience, time, forms, motifs. A time of lethargy, oblivious to the frantic currents of contemporary. A space for dreams and ideas that are linked in a poetic way, without the need for an explicit narrative. An exercise in style and a work of reflection and observation that will repay patience but is not good home video material, as it ought to be experienced in a theater with a good sound system.

Locarno reviews pointed out Whittmann's baldfaced referential approach. The most obvious one is to Claire Denis' abstract but sensual beefcake poem shot in steamy Djibouti, Beau Travail (in turn nodding to Melville's "Billy Budd"), dedicated to young French Foreign Legion trainees, of whom the most notable or hunkiest is Gilles (Grégoire Colin). Gilles becomes the destructive obsession of Sergeant Galoup, played by Denis Lavant; hence Lavant's walk-through appearance here when Ida spots him and impulsively follows him to his apartment.

Neil Young's Locarno Screen Daily review characterized Whittmann's new film unflatteringly as "A sluggishly paced series of discrete episodes, only occasionally enlivened by some fleeting visual or stylistic flourish." He points out further security provided Whittmann by referencing the prestigious Marguerite Duras’ 1952 novel The Sailor From Gibraltar, made into a less successful but starrily cast film by Tony Richardson. Young feels viewers will find this sophomore effort "a significant letdown after [her debut] Drift’s idiosyncratic promise." This is my first Wittmann experience, so I cannot comment on that. I can only say that this is a challenging film, one that provides rewards more in the memory than the viewing experience, but doubtless of appeal to the fans of high seriousness and self-conscious slow-filmmaking.

Human Flowers of Flesh, 106 mins., debuted at Locarno in competition Aug. 7, 2022; also shown at the New York Film Festival Oct. 10, 2022, and in the Göteborg Film Festival, AFI Festival, and others. Screened at Metrograph Apr. 5, 2023 for this review, opening there Apr. 14 for a one-week exclusive New York run. Metacritic rating 57%.

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