Some filmmakers have difficulty traveling between the short format and feature films, the former more often than not feeling like exercises, excerpts, or condensations, or the latter, in rarer cases (given the relative death of the short format some 60-odd years ago) seeming simply like brief ideas outstaying their welcome. The aesthetic of writer/director Eugène Green is so clean and simple in this age of image saturation and hyper-abundant kinetics that his “mini-film” Les Signes feels as natural and fluid as his fascinating longer features like 2004’s Le Pont des Arts and 2003’s miniature knight’s tale, Le Monde Vivant. Honing his mise-en-scène to the most essential elements—his actor’s faces, specific objects (like a lantern, cups of cider, and Tintin adventures), small fragmentations (a family’s shoes as they enter their house), and the sea of the port town setting—Green reaches a sublime, tactile atmosphere as weighted as it is in the immensity of meaning within all things and all words as it is light, comic, and limpid in the marvelous stiltedness of its theatre, of the affectation of Green’s deep-believing romantics, and of their silly, admirable assuredness. Like many who have such a unique and pleasing form, with every new work one wants to re-iterate the ways the director envisions his film, but to avoid redundancy I will point the reader to my reviews of Le Monde Vivant and Le Pont des Arts for brief descriptions of Green’s minimalism.
Inspired by a mysterious, glowing triptych by photographer Maitetxu Etchevarria, Les Signs catches the movement towards…something else, of a small family whose fisherman paterfamilias disappeared at sea ten years ago. The mother (Green regular Christelle Prot) lights a lantern in the window facing the harbor each night, and when her older, teenage son (Achille Trocellier) chastises her for giving up the search for his father she replies that she hopes, and her internalization is clearly her way of searching. The son, having reached a rebellious, obstinate age, talks up the town to find an alternative to this father’s possible death, and latches onto the idea that his father never was on the boat that went missing at sea. The youngest son (Marin Charvet)—too young to remember his father or feel invested in the sorrow and interiority of his mother or the energy and frustration of his brother—spends his time solving puzzles, his name for re-assembling broken things (like a vase), and while his mother is wary to leave him alone in the house by himself, fearing she may lose him too, the boy declares his readiness to be on his own. In the face of this deadlock of expectations comes an amnesiac and wayward sailor in the form of perfectly cast Mathieu Amalric, whose lazy eye combines with Green’s affinity for shooting his characters straight on to create a kind of humble sage out of Amalric’s gentle but uncanny expression. Amalric asks the older son if he has listened to what the gulls have to say about his father’s disappearance, and later the mother finally leaves the house only to be kindly affronted by the sailor in a café (where lurks Green and Etchevarria smiling over a Tintin book), and asked if she would recognize the man she has been waiting for after ten years has passed. The family re-assembles back home in the twilight, finding a mysterious package delivered containing Etechvarria’s triptych, and each sees in their own panel their location on their own lives’ path: the young son, left by himself, finally is at home; the older son exists where his father has disappeared to, out in the world in all its mystery and concreteness; and the mother is between the two, aligned towards the unnamed panel, the path connecting the home to the outside world.
Green’s simple tale does not bank on the spiritual revelations that conclude his previous movies, the kind of enlightenment that, in his mise-en-scène is as physical as it is spiritual. Les Signs is a more humble and, if possible, discreet film, that ends on the rare note of discovering not the solution or the resolution, but rather the next step in a path that leads onward. This is of course crucial in a story that surrounds the obsession of an event that took place a decade ago, and Green uses moments as subtle as the late-act shifting in camera focus from the lantern-in-the-window to the harbor outside it to signify this simple, hopeful movement. It is a progress not necessarily past the traumatic event from long ago, but rather towards a growth away from a helpless stasis, forlorn and abstract in the case of the wife, inflexible and utterly material in the case of the older son, and perhaps absent for the youngest, who puts things together but knows not why. Thus, in speech, comes from the sailor the idea of the father going out in the world to become wise and then returning a different man, Etechvarria’s nebulous photographs of paths through the darkness, and the inclusion of Tintin’s exotic adventures that, echoing Green’s Baroque philosophy, marry a protagonist frozen in years and experience but one whose journeys always, eventually return home. It is a charming, idiosyncratic work, as it so richly blends those two qualities most alluring in Green’s films, of an utter clarity in his characters and their lives, and of an unknowable mystery inside them that allows them to take that next step. In Les Signes it is perhaps the most mysterious of all steps, one that is only—but powerfully in that “only”—an acknowledgement that there is a step, and a path, and that life at the moment is not the end but only part of a journey.
255MB | 31m 29s | 720×324 | avi