Jan 6, 2014
Although experimenting with video art as far back as the mid-1970s, revolutionary French auteur Philippe Grandrieux (Sombre, White Epilepsy)—arguably the most innovative and idiosyncratic director associated with the so-called New French Extremity—has only directed three feature-length films. Undoubtedly, Grandrieux’s first two features, Sombre (1998) and A New Life (2002) aka La vie nouvelle, are two of the most decidedly dark and viciously visceral yet unnervingly joyous works I have ever seen in my life to the point where I can safely say that is seems to me that the auteur has totally reinvented film as an artistic medium and has created his own cinematic language. Of course, the director's third and most recent feature, Un lac (2008) aka A Lake, is no less an experimental and uncompromising work, yet it is certainly a less violent and more minimalistic film that centers around a seemingly unlikely ‘protagonist’ for a Grandrieux; a young man with what the filmmaker described as having a pure heart. Naturally, Grandrieux’s definition of a ‘pure heart’ might be a tad different than that of the average filmgoer as the young male protagonist suffers from epilepsy and has quasi-incestuous feelings for his own sister, so when a handsome stranger shows up and interrupts the order of things, internal tragedy strikes. Set in an unnamed snowy wooded region (apparently, the film was shot in the Swiss Alps) near an unnamed lake in an unnamed country in the North where the handful of inhabitants speak French with mostly Russian accents, Un lac, despite being directed by a frog, has a thoroughly Teutonic essence that feels like Edgar Reitz’s Heimat: A Chronicle of Germany (1984) meets the darkly romantic paintings of Caspar David Friedrich and philosophy of Martin Heidegger. Indeed, as an auteur who has named F.W. Murnau, Robert Bresson, Jean Epstein, Stan Brakhage, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder as imperative filmic influences, Grandrieux treats film as a deadly serious, if not strangely joyous, artistic medium comparable to literature and painting, even if some could argue that his films mostly fit in the horror genre. Indeed, if I had to lump Un lac into any ‘genre,’ I would describe it as a naturalistic and metaphysical neo-Heimat horror film, but that would be probably selling the work too short. A decidedly daunting depiction of man as beast in his most natural and instinctive habitat, Un lac can ultimately be philosophically summed up by the protagonist’s words: “As is the death of the man… So is the death of the animal… One soul. Only one… No man has dominion over the wind.”
Un lac opens rather intensely with a young man named Alexi (Dmitriy Kubasov) hysterically hacking away at something with great passion. Alex is a woodcutter and he is chopping down a tree as if completely one with nature and not in the sort of phony hippie environmentalist sort of way, but as someone who grew up in depths of the forest and has grown to deeply respect nature with the same care one would give to his fellow human beings. Rather unfortunately, Alexi suffers from regular horrific epileptic fits and is known to suffer body-stunning attacks whilst all by his lonesome. As depicted early on in the film, Alexi goes to his sister Hege (Natálie Rehorová) for comfort after suffering epileptic fits, but his love for his sister seems more than simply sibling based as indicated by his awkward remark to her, “You’re my sister. Even so…,” which she seems to intentionally ignore the meaning of. One day while working, Alexi is approached by a strange young man who seems to be around the same age as him who simply states, “I’m Jurgen. I’ve come to cut wood.” Indeed, while Jurgen (Alexei Solonchev) has come to simply cut wood, he also comes to fall in love at first sight with Alexi’s sister Hege. One day, Alexi, Hege, and Jurgen head out for a play date in the country and the newcomer and young lady seem rather close to one another despite being virtual strangers. From atop a waterfall, Alexi witnesses his sister and Hege kissing, so he runs away like a hurt little girl into the depths of the snowy forest. Eventually, Hege and Jurgen go looking for Alexi. At the dead of night, Jurgen eventually finds Alex half-frozen-to-death and does everything he can to revive him, ultimately saving the epileptic logger's life. Jurgen brings Alexi back home and the troubled woodcutter immediately embraces his blind mother Liv (Simona Huelsemann) in a most childlike manner. That night, Alexi stares at Jurgen in an almost possessed manner as he sleeps and tells his sister Hege that the stranger “must stay” as he has helped both of the siblings. After a happy day with the entire family (excluding the blind mother and missing father), Hege and Jurgen finally make love, but not before the lady demands a pre-coitus kiss from her gentleman caller. Needless to say, Hege is a discernibly changed woman after being deflowered and her incessantly lurking brother is not very happy about that, though he does not have the gall to confess such. Out of seemingly nowhere (indeed, Un lac is nothing if not a film where the viewer is left both figuratively and literally in the dark!), Alexi and Hege’s father Christian (Vitaliy Kishchenko) eventually shows up and his blind wife lovingly greets him by stating, “I waited for you, Christian,” to which he less than warmly replies “I’m here, Liv.” Alexi also takes the time to embrace his father, hugging him at hip-level like a scared child and strangely stating to his papa, “I don’t know now” as if his entire life has been rattled to the core by irreparable chaos. During a somberly lit dinner scene where the dinner table is nowhere to be seen, father Christian encourages his debutante daughter to serve newcomer Jurgen as if he is symbolically giving away his daughter. The next day, Hege sings with noticeable joy and her brother Alexi attempts to destroy this joy by jealously stating, “It’s not like before…Your voice,” but he cannot phase her undying feeling of love and happiness. In the end, lovelorn epileptic Alexi continues to have seizures (but this time his father, as opposed to his sister, comforts him) and without anyone in the family knowing except blind mother Liv, sister Hege leaves with Jurgen to start a new life in what is the closest thing to a happy ending when it comes to a Philippe Grandrieux film.
A sort of brazenly bittersweet mix of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema (1968) meets Harmony Korine’s Julien Donkey-Boy (1999) as directed by a man who is just as much of a sculptor and painter as he is a filmmaker, Un lac is undoubtedly as organic and traditionally themed as films come as a work that could have just as easily have been set in the middle-ages. Indeed, considering our superlatively soulless and technocratic age where more and more films resemble video games and where Hollywood makes sick flicks like The Kids Are All Right (2010) directed by kosher carpet-muncher Lisa Cholodenko depicting loony lesbos as ideal bourgeois parents, Un lac is a strikingly wholesome and family-oriented work. Despite the everyday hardships of their lives, Grandrieux depicted the family of Un lac with the utmost empathy and respect and not in the sentimentalist manner typical of old school German Heimat films. Of course, Grandrieux’s sympathizes do not simply lie in man, but beast as well as demonstrated by the virtual worship the family of Un lac gives to their sole horse. Indeed, in one especially endearing scene at the beginning of the film, protagonist Alexi embraces the horse in such as deeply passionate and loving manner that most modern viewers would probably mistake the scenario for bestiality. Although I doubt Grandrieux would like hearing this, I suspect Un lac is the sort of avant-garde film one might have expected from a contemporary auteur of the Third Reich had the Teutonic empire not perished in a mere 12 years. Of course, in its innate melancholy and delightfully draining depiction of an ‘unconventional’ family, Un lac would probably be deemed a subversive work by a contemporary incarnation of the Third Reich, but it is also undoubtedly a work that will seem even more subversive to the typical autistic Tarantino fanboy or fervent French New Wave fanatic. A true film for all and no one, Un lac is the radical remainder that it is not cinema that is dead, but the film directors behind the cameras, with Grandrieux being a rare exception. Although I compared it to A New Life (2002) aka La vie nouvelle in a previous review, Un lac is the closest thing to a contemporary equivalent to Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) and like Murnau’s masterpiece, Grandrieux’s film is unfortunately wasted on most viewers. Apparently, once described by the director as the other side of the coin to La vie nouvelle, Un lac is ultimately a virtually dialogue-less family film that gets at the heart of tenderness, but not without exploring the inner torment such tenderness sires in those with a pure heart who come into contact with impurity.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 9:06 PM
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