Come Crashing Down

in 42nd Rotterdam International Film Festival

by Boris Nelepo

Flashes of lightning illuminate the dark night to an electronic soundtrack while the voice-over goes at regular intervals: “Or else lightning will strike you”. This is the opening sequence of the most ambitious film of the last edition of the Rotterdam International Film Festival, Lightning (Foudre) by the French director Manuela Morgaine. The title is not misleading: the four-hour-long project is entirely dedicated to the natural phenomenon of lightning that according to Wikipedia is essentially “a massive electric spark discharge in the atmosphere which usually happens during a storm, manifesting itself in a bright flash of light accompanied by thunder”, but which for Morgaine represents ‘a legend in four seasons’, as the film’s subtitles say.

Four chapters for four seasons: this is probably the way Jean-Charles Fitoussi would have made a documentary. The extended running time results from the film’s intricate architecture. It starts out as a traditional documentary on survivors of lightning strikes. Most of the characters’ lives were completely transformed by the accident, so they keep coming back to it in their minds. A beautiful girl became disabled through a lightning bolt but still remained a dancer, perceiving the wheelchair as an extension of her own body. Such events are rare, and they lead to abnormal consequences: the lower part of her body is paralyzed, but her toes still have some sensitivity and allow her to feel the sand under her feet. A shepherd went into a field with a friend; the friend was struck dead by lightning, but the shepherd was spared. This is not only an act of nature, but also a visual symbol of the discrimination of fate. A gas station attendant scorched by lightning admits ruefully that his client simply drove off, without even paying for the gas.

The first part of the film seems almost conventional and ordinary, yet even here some strangeness transpires. Baal is the chapter’s title: this is the way the thunder-bearing narrator introduces himself. The part is interpreted — or rather, the voice-over monologue is recited by — a DJ Baal. A fragment of Bertold Brecht’s first play, Baal, is read out in Lightning; Rainer Werner Fassbinder and David Bowie have both starred as its protagonists. From thereon in it only gets more complex. Winter comes, and the second chapter begins. The narrator’s role is now given over to Saturn, or “the doctor of melancholy” William de Carvalho who works in a psychiatric clinic near Paris and treats people for catatonia. A long time ago, this treatment included putting a torpedo fish on the patient’s head, so that the charge would chase oppressive thoughts away; nowadays, doctors use electric shock.

According to Morgaine, this segment of the film explores the origin of dark thoughts. We meet some patients diagnosed with clinical depression: Nostalgia Man, Madonna of Sharks, and Great Horned Owl. The first one suffers from pathological nostalgia: all of his loved ones are long dead and buried. The last one jumped into a cold river as a child to save an owl whose wing had been gnawed away by worms; a week later, the bird died. Morgaine rhymes this part with the lamentation from Aeschylus’s Agamemnon. In the spring, Simeon the Stylite travels to Syria in search of a rare aphrodisiac truffle called Kama that features in One Thousand and One Nights. Legend has it that these truffles are engendered by lightning strikes upon the desert sand. Finally, the summer is a screen adaptation of The Dispute, a rare play by Marivaux that has recently been staged by Patrice Chéreau. The main character, Églé, is played by a young woman formerly shown as one Carvalho’s patients; the doctor himself is shown filming her with a handheld camera.

Lightning took almost ten years to produce, and you can feel the titanic effort that went into it. The first part is based on four years of correspondence between the director and a real lightning catcher. Original music had to be composed for each chapter, dance intermissions had to be choreographed, and locations found in distant places of France and Africa. This kind of thoroughness, however, weighs heavy upon Morgaine’s work from the very start. The director is so fascinated by her lightning-struck characters that instead of simply letting them tell their stories she takes the effort to reproduce the actual circumstances of the accident, going back to the exact spots where it had happened. Quite understandably, a beginner dealing with a camera for the very first time would find it difficult to distance herself from her material, especially since it took so much time, effort, and money (raised through crowdfunding, among other means) to produce. Nevertheless, one could have done without the poor computer renderings of ball lightnings or the roller captions listing the names of all the deceased friends of Nostalgia Man.

No wonder Lightning seems annoying to nearly everyone. The pomposity, the excessive volume, the grand ambitions could in a sense be a match to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. The film dwells not only on an act of nature, but on the unscrutable beauty and the cruel willfulness of life. Lightning can kill as well as it can cure or spare. In this essay of a film, the director attempts to pull together humanity, God, the mission of art, love, and the flow of time that forms another motif. Time here follows a nonlinear path and is capable of turning back. For lightning, there is no difference between seasons or centuries: it struck shepherds before Christ just as it does now, and the same goes for art: back in the 18th Century, Marivaux posed some of the problems we are feeling impotent about today, and which just like a couple of centuries ago are still causing depression.

Depression is at the heart and at the source of the film. While working on the chapter on Saturn, Manuela Morgaine and the psychiatrist Carvalho co-authored a book entitled Wpsyché: Idées noires et angles morts. Most of the director’s relatives perished in concentration camps, leaving her catatonic. Lightning is an attempt to find a remedy for the diagnosed lack of joy. The impressive collection of narratives that form the film is in some way similar to One Thousand and One Nights. The elaborately structured collage allows for first-person accounts, dramatizations, adaptations, literary references, amateur video footage, and poetry. At a certain point there is even documentation of the manufacture of soap. Found footage and found objects such as the doll of a depressed young woman, talking heads and quotations from Brecht all find their way into the story and get delicately intertwined in an ultra-fine network, while the voice-over fills the gap between the fictional and documentary elements.

This affirmation of the incredible diversity of life is opposed to depression and the loss of health, faith and loved ones. Morgaine’s finale is exceptional: the fictional and the real characters, patients of psychiatric wards and lightning victims, Saturn and Simeon all appear at an incredible dance party organized by DJ Baal. The sky has come crashing down, everybody can dance now.

Edited by Carmen Gray