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The Plough 2023 Movie Review
“What are you looking at? – Nothing – What can you see? – Everything.” It was the film of a master-miniaturist, built upon the many invisible layers making up the life of an artist-artisan and a man, that Philippe Garrel unveiled in competition in the Berlinale via The Plough [+], which is the 28th feature film in a career which has spanned different eras uncompromisingly, with the essence of his poetic and exacting cinema mission remaining intact. And, without wanting to prematurely lay the director to rest, his new opus does have the slight feel of a last testament to it (though wholly non-crepuscular, since the film is high in colour, a rare thing in Garrel’s filmography) or of a passing of the baton, if not an outright homage to a particular line of artists, because for the very first time, the master’s three children are brought together on screen (Louis, Esther and Lena) and the story revolves around a family company of puppeteers (which was the profession of the filmmaker’s father Maurice Garrel before he became an actor).
That said, we’re clearly not dealing with a family documentary either – although writers will doubtless find themselves extracting a wealth of biographical elements – because the director now boasts such mastery of free-flowing, stripped back, novelistic narrative (awash with classic trademarks, such as voice-overs and navigation between various characters) that he can rise high enough to sidestep any possible confusion between reality and his characters, creating a simple, lucid work full of spirit and imagination.
“We’re a family, but not only that. We’re a theatre troupe of the kind you don’t see anymore”. The constellation suggested by the film’s title comprises four stars and three satellites which are gathered around Simon (Aurélien Recoing) who directs the puppeteer company he inherited from his father. Simon’s three children, Louis (Louis Garrel), Martha (Esther Garrel) and Lena (Lena Garrel) live and work with him, as does their grandmother (Francine Bergé) who shares her memories during mealtimes (“I was left-wing, so, for my mother, a future criminal, and I met an acrobat”). They’re joined by a friend of Louis’, Pieter (Damien Mongin), who dreams only of fulfilling his calling as a painter and who falls head over heels for Laura (Asma Messaoudene), despite the fact that he’s expecting a child with Hélène (Mathilde Weil). All the pieces for these sentimental and existentialist comings and goings – which are typical of Philippe Garrel’s world – are in place, and the sudden, rapid death of the father and then the grandmother sees the entire deck of cards reshuffled (“as if a continent were breaking away and leaving an enormous shadow behind it”), with each of the children having a different idea of what their lives should look like…
Without forcing anything, and painstakingly avoiding any melodramatic eruptions, Philippe Garrel gently tackles the multitude of subjects which are closest to his heart (life as an artist, family, love, friendship, time). It’s a perfect portrait beneath a modest surface, which pulls back the curtain on the universe of those pulling puppets’ strings in the world of fiction, folk who are more than familiar with the ups and downs of life.
The Plough is produced by Rectangle Productions in co-production with Arte France Cinéma, Tournon Films, and Switzerland’s Close Up Films and RTS. Sales are entrusted to Wild Bunch International.