On December 21, two films will be released in theaters which, each in its own way, make room for “nature”. In the Alps of northern Italy (and a little in Nepal) for that of Belgian directors Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeerschin the plains, marshes and mountains of Iceland for that of the Icelandic filmmaker Hlynur Palmason.
In both, characters live adventures like the cinema tells since accountants added the requirement of the script to the production of films, according to the stimulating formula of Jean-Luc Godard in History(ies) of cinema. They each tell a story.
But they do it by establishing between humans, their acts and their feelings, and what we now call the non-human, relations that are partly innovative, and partly quite conventional but in a context, that of today. today, where this issue is conceived and questioned differently than in the past.
Westerns and their derivatives, up to The Emerald Forest Where Avatar (the first, there is nothing left in the artificial leisure park of n°2) like the Giono inspired movies, Dersou Ouzala of Kurosawa as a part of post-war Soviet cinema, to cite but a few examples that come to mind spontaneously, have made the natural environment in which their characters evolve at least a little more than a setting, sometimes a subject, sometimes a protagonist modifying the fate of those whose story was told.
However, in fiction cinema, we have to wait for the 21ste century so that not only “nature” becomes a character in its own right, but that the staging is profoundly modified, calling into question the centrality of individuals in the stories.
Staging not entirely focused on the characters
Perhaps the most obvious example is the work of the Thai Apichatpong WeerasethakulPalme d’or in 2010 with Uncle Boonmee and whose whole cinema welcomes forms inspired by the animal, vegetable, mineral world…
But the films of the Argentinian Lisandro Alonsofrom Tunisian Ala Eddine Slimfrom the American Kelly Reichardtfrom Italian Michelangelo Frammartinoor certain achievements of the Japanese Naomi Kawase are all examples of narratives assuming fiction while radically displacing the organizations of space and time defined solely by their relationship to the human character.
Regrettably but predictably, these approaches far removed from the habits of the vast majority of spectators find themselves marginalized by the market as it functions today. However, they have an important role to play in the modification, thanks to the powers of cinema, of our perceptions, sensory but above all affective and imaginary.
This role is necessary for everyone, including those who are convinced of the issues linked to ecology: we can see only too well how the conviction in principle in favor of ecological behavior is not enough to transform in depth our ways of inhabiting the earth.
When the stones, the sky and the clouds take up more space than human figures, not only on the screen but in the imagination. | distribution pyramid
In what way, however legitimate it may be, the cinema explicitly dedicated to mobilization is very insufficient in the face of the changes in ways of thinking and acting called for by the scale of the disasters already underway and those, much worse, which are profile.
Godland and The Eight Mountains both occupy an intermediate place on this arc of modifications in the ways of filming, and of making the inscription of human stories felt in a world which requires accommodating non-humans in a meaningful way.
This intermediate place, halfway between anthropocentric conformism (including with conventional “love of nature”) and an in-depth crisis of the ways of filming inherited from this long tradition, is important.
It is indeed certain that the rupture films, as necessary as they are, will not be enough to operate the essential displacements. Each in its own way, the film by Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch and that by Hlynur Pálmason are part of these essential journeys. These ways are not the same, and if there is little point in opposing them, there is some benefit in contrasting them.
“The Eight Mountains”
adapted froma bestseller by Paolo Cognetti (transposition which feels a little too much throughout the film), the first tale literally life-to-death friendship of two boys, Pietro and Bruno, one son of the cities and the other of a village mountains, who retain this intense emotional bond into adulthood.
If Bruno refuses to move from his pastures, where he tries to live as a breeder according to traditional methods, Pietro leaves to travel the world, but always comes back to his friend.
We know since Alabama Monroe (of which Charlotte Vandermeersch was co-screenwriter) the skill of Felix van Groeningen to play the sentimental springs. In the service of a somewhat simplistic philosophy, the two men to whom the story is devoted have in the film presences without great depth beyond the function they embody. And very clearly focused on their individual performance, the two actors, who are big stars in Italy, Luca Marinelli and Alessandro Borghi, do little to help give Pietro and Bruno more nuance.
But from then on, the mountains, the snow, the vegetation in the different seasons, the sensations of hot and cold, the hardness of the stones, the states of the wood like those of the sky acquire in The Eight Mountains a considerable presence, and ultimately much more touching.
This presence of non-humans of all kinds infuses the fable with a current and otherwise acute questioning on the comparative virtues of attachment to one’s center and the need to explore, a question supposedly at the heart of the story but hardly enhancement even if the title refers to it.
Much better than the mythological and metaphorical “eight mountains” to which it refers, or the actors embodying the fiction, it is the peaks and valleys of the Valle d’Aosta that are the real stars and moving characters.
The Eight Mountains
by Felix Van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch
with Luca Marinelli, Alessandro Borghi
Released on December 21, 2022
It is very different with the third feature film by the author of the already very remarkable Winter Brothers.
Godland recount the journey of a young danish pastor through the harsh Icelandic landscapes at the end of the 19th centurye century. Sent to build a church in an isolated corner of the island, he is accompanied by islanders ill-disposed towards a representative ofa country under whose rule theirs had been then for 500 years.
Lucas burns with a conquering flame, where his faith, his will to power and his curiosity for this world he ignores are consumed together. Over the course of the ordeals that punctuate his path, storms, restive mounts, swollen rivers and steep mountains, he will lose the large cross he is carrying, but not the tripod camera with which he records faces and landscapes. In the distance glows a volcanic eruption.
The second part of the film takes place in the village where Lucas settles to build his church, and where he becomes friends with a young woman and her family. Idylls, conflicts and shenanigans will follow, which punctuate the intimate evolutions of the main character.
But in the sedentary part of the film as in its itinerant part, the climatic conditions, the animals, the presence of the elements, the earth and the rocks, the bad weather and the cold, are captured on an equal footing with the human beings who evolve there according to motivations often partly obscure, or contradictory.
The shots of the film gain an impressive power there, which tends to inscribe Godland in the wake of great Scandinavian cinema nourished by the relationship between humans and transcendence, with as major figures Carl Dreyer and Ingmar Bergmanand still part of the work of Lars von Trier.
Ragnar (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson), the Icelandic guide hostile to Lucas, component of a cosmos where the elements are as important as humans. | day2party
But, unlike the works of his illustrious predecessors, God actually has little place in Hlynur Pálmason’s dramaturgy, to the point of making the film’s title ironic. It is between human impulses and the forces of nature, including the passage of time, that a brutal and sensual drama is played out, very populated by beings with an intense presence: men, women, children, animals, plants, minerals, meteors…
The format of the image evokes period photos, these photos that we see Lucas execute in adventurous conditions but which also give a place to technology in this decidedly complex world, where the question of languages, the place of songs and customs are also part of the rich material of which is composed Godland.
Above all, it unfolds in a way that does not give all the rights to the dominant logic of a narrator (unlike the Eight Mountainscaricatural from this point of view with its invasive and omniscient voice-over). Godland accommodates swerves, ruptures, diffractions. He stops to scan a landscape in search of signs, listens to the wind, observes over several seasons the mutations of the living and the dead.
It is inhabited by a whole narrative seismology and meteorology in touch with the contradictory passions of the characters as well as with the rhythms and densities of non-human beings.
It’s not about filming like a mountain or like a storm, which means nothing. It is a question of finding forms of staging that give access, in a sensitive way, to other modalities of being in the world among which those of humans are constructed and reconfigured. Hlynur Pálmason’s film is a very good proposal in this sense, and perhaps an important milestone in a desirable evolution of the language of cinema.
by Hlynur Palmason
with Elliott Crosset Hove, Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson, Victoria Carmen Sonne
Released on December 21, 2022
Jean-Michel Frodon’s film reviews are to be found in the show “Cultural Affinities” by Tewfik Hakem, Sundays from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. on France Culture.
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“Godland” and “The Eight Mountains”, terrestrial odysseys