Let the Sea Set You Free

in 75th Locarno International Film Festival

by Müge Turan

One of the 17 titles selected for Locarno’s competition this year was Human Flowers of the Flesh, German writer-director Helena Wittmann’s second feature after her 2017 debut Drift. Like Drift, Human Flowers of the Flesh is barely a narrative film, this time taking us across the Mediterranean to chase the ghosts of legionnaires. Inspired by Marguerite Duras’ 1952 novel The Sailor from Gibraltar, the protagonist is Ida (Angeliki Papiliou), who lives on a yacht with her “troop” – a small all-male multinational crew, whose mission seems to be to collect and preserve the flora and fauna of the Mediterranean. The theme of the legionnaire and colonial psyche is at the film’s heart: we see recurring  glimpses of French Foreign Legion personnel on Corsica and also poems and old photographs. The film ends up in North Africa, where Ida follows and meets Sergeant Galoup (played by Denis Lavant, the lead actor in Claire Denis’ 1999 Beau Travail).

Human Flowers of the Flesh is an assemblage of discrete episodes that are connected by a common thread of transformation. Like the emerging butterflies or the plants beneath the Medusa’s Head that bleed and become part of the coral reef, it is about transformation. The process of transformation is realised not only through stories but also as a cinematic experience, such as the image of parachutists (probably legionnaires) dropping out of a plane and floating down like jellyfish, or the long underwater scene exploring the historical marine habitat. Wittmann is obsessively attuned to the sea’s movement, grandeur and diversity; she includes an interlude of dreamy blue-tinted 8mm, where the film frame turns into a watercolour painting and lets the seas take over the narration. 

The cinematic sea is seen as a projection screen to be filled with musings and memories. The Greek wanderer Ida is also a fluid character, mostly self-contained but also a woman sailing into the heart of a secret male world. The connection between Ida and the legionnaires is left open and vague until she has the encounter with Galoup. Lavant’s bodily imprint proves that the legionnaires and the legacy of colonialism remain present; it is also Wittmann’s homage to another filmmaker who has revealed the multiplicities of the colonial and postcolonial body. This homage to Denis reflects a feminist perspective, as does the identification of the body as a focal point for the production and transmission of affect. Wittmann, through her positioning of the landscape, the plasticity of the film (particularly the skin of the sea) and the human bodies, gives us an intimate tactile sense of the body. As the film’s focus, this body as mediated object has the potential to destabilize, disrupt and transform.

Human Flowers of the Flesh is a slow, meditative odyssey that is both political and poetic. Working as her own editor and cinematographer, Wittmann foregrounds a haptic, non-verbal form of communication with a sensuous attention to texture, surface, movement and intimacy. Like Drift, it is woven together by water, although the difference here is that we can actually hear the boat speaking or even singing to us, thanks to the composition and sound design of Nika Son. This only proves that sound in cinema can expand beyond the edges of the frame and become bodily too.

Müge Turan
Edited by Lesley Chow