“As is the death of man, so is the death of the animal. One soul, only one.”
No, that’s not an allusion to the pigs in Upstream Color. These words belong to Alexi, a young boy at the centre of Philippe Grandrieux’s entrancing third feature, Un Lac (2008). The film has been described as the French auteur’s most accessible offering to date; retaining his distinctive sensory approach – a handheld camera bathed in darkness, pressing against and along its subjects’ surfaces – Grandrieux presents a mood and narrative comparatively easier for testy viewers to digest and draw moral judgement upon than with previous features Sombre (1998) and La Vie Nouvelle (2002), both of which came under accusations of gender binary.
The accessibility of Un Lac – and its appeal as a purely aesthetic experience with minor psychoanalytical readings – can be attributed to the undisruptive temperament of young Alexi. Unlike the unhinged soldier of La Vie Nouvelle and the prostitute-killer of Sombre, Alexi is instantly reachable to audiences predisposed to traditional notions of good and evil and consequently alienated by the aforementioned features. Grandrieux is aware of these reductive notions, frequently referring to his films as ‘fairy tales’ despite their clear subversive properties. Sombre can be loosely interpreted as a study in the realistic impracticalities of reconciliation in Beauty and the Beast, and La Vie Nouvelle portrays what appears to be a damsel in distress held captive by an objective evil.
The word ‘damsel’ is, of course, to be used with caution. In spite of the violent action committed towards women in two of these three films, there is in fact no such rigid binary that apportions men and women into separate camps of respectively bestial hegemony and feminine passivity. This refusal is exemplified most explicitly in La Vie Nouvelle’s collection of dysfunctional bodies. The tormented soldier Seymour follows the dominion of human trafficker and puppetmaster Boyan in equal measure to sex worker Melania; devilish Boyan twirls his arms, causing Melania to pirouette on the spot, using a resembling gesture to feed Seymour’s desires and lead him downward into the film’s most disquieting sequence.
Inside a busied dwelling shot as inverted, monochorome infra-red, Seymour spies Melania’s illuminated essence on the far side, abstracted into the figure of a dog on all fours, crawling on the floor with no sense of trajectory. Grandrieux’ thesis dictates our universality – men and women – as predominantly bestial creatures, and in La Vie Nouevelle the motif is reinforced with canine imagery; most tellingly, the shot of a dog, chained to a post, running in circles in a repetitive motion that anticipates no eventual climax or relief. The id-inspired carnal energy exuded by those at the mercy of their animalistic nature in fact supplements the greater, fundamental conceit of animal beings mired in a perpetual motion leading to nowhere and nothing.
In Sombre, the concept of movement is indicated with bookends centring on the Tour de France. The second of these features a tracking camera floating past a row of spectators, each of them waiting patiently for the brief glimpse of travelling cyclists to enter their field of vision and leave within the span of a few seconds. For Jean, the serial killer who follows the cycle route in search of women to fuck and kill (in that order), there is no finish line in sight. He’s stuck in an everlasting motion of functional relief, moving from one body to the next. Similarly, the prostitutes themselves are effecting mere function; they exchange money for services night after night, for the good of naught. The bodies mingle and dance together, not knowing when or how the music will stop, if ever. In one scene, an anonymous naked girl aimlessly sways in the headlights of Jean’s car as he sets upon a different female in the front seat. The carnage appears unending until the emergence of a virgin named Claire – the Beauty to Jean’s Beast – whose proclivity to a more meaningful human fulfilment causes a rupture in this entrenched malaise of mechanized self-nourishment.
Grandrieux’s camera refuses the efficacy of establishing shots common to conventional film grammar, electing to glue itself to the bodies of its subjects and have the frame smothered in a sensorial overload of touch and feeling. A low gust of wind rests at the base level of the soundtrack, plugging into an absence beneath all diegetic sound. Most of each film is dialogue-free, befitting the status of these silent beasts; the minority of lengthy dialogue scenes abstracted from the overriding aesthetic take place within a more naturalistic setting. Although Grandrieux is probing the unmitigated nature that calls to us from outside and within, his style far from resembles an objective realism. His Bressonian figures drift silently through a composition of near-darkness, the camera drawn to the mere fraction of light lining the edges of their body, haunting their headspace as a means of appropriating their disposition.
The location of each film is thus never explicitly signified, allowing us to regard the dilapidated milieu of La Vie Nouvelle as more than just an Eastern European country, and so too the wintry Northern forests of Un Lac. Dismissal of political and social contextualisation allows for greater attuning to the characters’ sensory reception of an environment. The lake of Un Lac signifies a form of escape for Hege as she elopes from the family home alongside farmhand Jurgen – this raises interesting questions about Claire’s fear of water in Sombre. A similar link can be drawn between the years of adolescence – marked by watershed anguish – lived by Alexi amidst the far-reaching trees of the forest, and the similar mass of trees within which Jean ultimately dissolves into at the close of Sombre. Earlier in the film, we share Jean’s view from the driver’s seat of a car as the trees hurtle by on the other wide of the window, obscuring the limitless sky and imposing on his will.
Clues such as these suggest the possibility of Grandrieux’s set of films comprising a sort of reverse trilogy. For the boy of Un Lac, the familial structure that provides a grounding security is torn apart by the departure of Hege, herself the strongest link in the chain of a weakened unit comprising a blind mother, absent father and vulnerable younger brother. By the end of Sombre, the character of Jean – seemingly a replica of both Alexi and Seymour – is helpless but to return to the wild in which he belongs. His attempts at reaching a compromise with Claire are futile, as are hers; she returns to civilisation equipped with a cover story for her temporary upheaval, yet still she cannot fully immerse herself back into the movement of daily life. In a shot common across the Grandrieux features, Claire sinks out of focus and into the bottom of frame, unable to resurface into normality.
La Vie Nouvelle’s Seymour exhibits a more agonising illustration of this disturbance. He’s halfway between the good intentions of Alexi and the carnal, desperate abandon of Jean. He too has a fear of the Other, an inability to come together with another in an act of pure intimacy. By the end of the film, he near-enough occupies the same psychological mindset as Jean at the beginning of Sombre.
One soul, only one. The analogousness between man and animal is displayed early in Un Lac, through a close-up shot that follows Alexi’s hand caressing the soft fur of a horse. The boy blows a delicate whisper into the air, failingly emulating the horse’s own raspy breaths. This young soul, innocent of heart, will in time succumb to his innate bestial constitution.