Un lac (Philippe Grandrieux, 2008)

by Smart

Recently I viewed Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse, a work that had such an immense impact on me that I must credit it with spurring on an evolution in the way I experience, analyse, absorb and interact with cinema. Beauty, as we so often see it in art, that seductive, poetic beauty, is an obstruction. Aesthetic romance shields the viewer from total introspection, putting an artificial limit on the exploration of our figurative abyss by way of decoration, distraction, divine visual comfort. Tarr has convinced me of this; I felt it so completely as I stared into the dark hollow he had carved out, where the soul, the meaning of life, could never exist. Philippe Grandrieux wields similar power as a director by masterfully tethering the viewer to his art. That is the ultimate success; to bridge the gap between mind and screen. Starting with the camera and the sound, these base devices bring forth the characters and their surrounding world, giving birth to atmosphere and, more importantly, opening a channel for direct communication with the visceral, emotional animal inside all of us. The messages Grandrieux chooses to transmit are often ambiguous and challenging, a fervid assault on our manicured sensibilities, making his imagery all the more piercing and immortal. Throughout Un lac hands earn the attention of the frame, portraying intimacy through movement. Hands hold warmth, blood, nerves and tendons, behind each minute action hides a consciousness. Every gesture has an intent that conveys a subjective, subliminal meaning. A blurred hand sinking in a sea of black feels more like a painting than a photograph, evoking a yearning for closeness, a desire to experience the touch of nature, be it in the form of snow, a tree, a horse, or a sister. Even in third person the camera behaves as if inside the head of the young man, Alexi. It shakes nauseatingly while observing his violent seizure. The cinematography is sympathetic, strengthening the bridge, drawing us into bondage.

Stark, overexposed compositions of the endless treetops against a vacant sky burn black and white, yet the morality unearthed in this story of the strange visitor remains shrouded in grey. This saturating sparseness absolves the family of the clutter and complexity of the quotidian; trudging through the harsh wilderness brings the characters closer to their isolating environment. Even in this life the most essential aspects of our continued existence, survival and sex, remain the cardinal impetus for deep self-reflection. In extreme conditions, where luxury is an unknown and staying alive is a challenge, fringe behaviour becomes frightening and evocative. Alexi’s silent shout is a challenge to reality, simultaneously a beacon of endurance and a protest against his struggle. Wails of despair, frustration and strife fill the dead air more than dialogue. As ghostly figures float inside a cloud they ward off depression and emptiness with strained love and affection. Tender, silent moments are crafted to be just as encroaching as the earlier seizure. With each swing of the axe there sparks a dichotomy of violence and determination, anger and contentment. Chopping wood is a tiring job full of instinctual pleasure. It is a task that must be completed, an accomplishment worthy of adoration. The two men give it their all, acutely aware of its significance, its therapeutic release and crucial purpose. After the work is done they share a drink and smile, laughing under the fresh falling snow. A rewarded exertion of force, as in sex, brings happiness. With so much action shown and so few words spoken I begin to make assumptions regarding the internal state of the characters. This is based partly on projection and partly on a familiarity gleamed from their nuanced facial expressions and unnatural body movements. Grandrieux’s channel transmits in both directions.

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