World War I drama mixes fact and fiction

Not quite a musical, some sort of folktale, and almost but not entirely a big chunk of post-war realism before suddenly shifting gears, ‘Scarlet’ – which opened the Fortnight’s sidebar on Wednesday of the Directors of the Cannes Film Festival 2022 – is a delicate project to define. Of course, director Pietro Marcello wouldn’t have it any other way.

Filming in French for the first time, the Italian filmmaker made a name for himself with documentaries before working found and historical footage in the world of the imaginary with “Martin Eden” in 2019. With this more ambitious follow-up (although more uneven), Marcello continues at a similar pace, turning fact into fiction as he explores both the landscapes of rural Normandy in the aftermath of World War I and the plight of the working poor, all across the craggy rocks of the front of its leader.

This front (and these rocks) belongs to Raphaël (Raphaël Thiéry), whom we discover limping from the front interspersed with historical footage of fellow soldiers doing the same. A tough man with a tender heart and the features of a tattered John C. Reilly disguised as the Golem of Prague, Raphael returns to his village to learn that his wife has died and left him to raise his daughter whom he never knew existed. Once again, he shows up for work.

Before focusing on his daughter Juliette (played by a number of child actors and newcomer Juliette Jouan as a young adult), Marcello’s 16mm camera lingers on the heavyweight veteran, focusing on his hands calluses, his strained relationship with his fellow citizens and his meticulous work. as a carpenter, giving the opening act an almost ethnographic touch.

Somehow this seems to be a trend among modern Italian directors. Like contemporaries Alice Rohrwacher (who contributed to the three-part documentary “Futura” alongside Marcello) and Alessio Rigo of Righi & Matteo Zoppis (whose film “The Tale of King Crab” starred alongside “Futura” in the Directors’ Fortnight last year), Marcello revels in folklore and celebrates tradition while casting suspicious glances at anything too new.

Indeed, as “Scarlet” primarily observes the craftsman during his first half, he reaches a kind of mission statement when a shopkeeper refuses Raphael’s handcrafted toys because they don’t fit the modern trinkets preferred by Kids These Days.

While Raphael is an artisan, Juliette is a songbird, so when the film pivots it quietly changes style, engaging in a register seemingly borrowed from the work of Jacques Demy as the solitary young girl wanders the forests around his house, filling the air with song.

Without ever taking pleasure in it, Marcello opposes these two registers by playing the down-to-earth side of Juliette’s family life – also represented by the actress of Noémie Lvovsky in the role of the maternal farmer who offers food and shelter. to father and daughter – to the subtle enchantments of the wider world.

With this scheme in mind, who else can complement actor Raphaël Thiéry’s granite block face than a polite Louis Garrel, truly leaning into silent film dandyism as a bawdy aviator who (literally) falls in Juliet’s life? And who can underscore Noémie Lvovsky’s practicality than the self-proclaimed city witch, played by actress Yolande Moreau in shock blonde hair? And who can blame the filmmaker for his ambitions, even if this shift from period realism to magical realism isn’t fully consistent in a satisfying way?

Boasting a number of new pieces written by Marcello, performed by actress Juliette Jouan and composed by composer Gabriel Yared (“The English Patient”) which all feel like they were discovered in a songbook 100 years old, “Scarlet” is a kind of very modern throwback, mixing a certain modern Italian style with the dream of French cinema of yesteryear. It’s a bit of a mess, no doubt, but fascinating. While it may not reach the heights of Marcello’s previous work, as a fitting opener for this year’s Directors’ Fortnight, the boy does soar.

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