Philippe Ramos' "Captain Ahab": Free as a Whale By Gabriele Barrera

in 59th Locarno International Film Festival

by Gabriele Barrera

Yes, the big white whale is the aged Moby Dick. Yes, the whale hunter is Herman Melville’s creature of Captain Ahab. But for Philippe Ramos — an eclectic young filmmaker born in the southeast of France, a contemporary of Yves Caumon, Jean-Paul Civeyrac, Alain Guiraudie, Laurent Achard, Serge Bozon and Jean-Charles Fitoussi — the kingdom of John Huston is really dead.

Huston’s own adaptation of Moby Dick (1956) is too far off; better yet, it’s as far away as possible. Gregory Peck, the old Captain Ahab, has swum into the depths of the History of the Cinema (just like John Barrymore’s Ahab, in Lloyd Bacon’s 1930 version). And the literary big fish captured in Raymond Weaver’s biography “Herman Melville, Mariner and Mystic”? Surprise: Melville’s dead, too!

And so with our sincere condolences, dear sailors, dear ship-owners, dear men-of-letters, dear cinéphiles, lovers of the Leviathan movies, searchers for the perfect marriage of Cinema and Literature, dear friends of André Gaudreault & François Jost with their “Le récit cinématographique”, and all those people in the sea-movies-harbor, hoping that Huston, Melville and Ahab will set sail again and again, have you heard the news? Philippe Ramos has sunk his film-harpoon into the whale’s flesh, into the “Moby Dick” visual tradition, into the traditional conception of the relationships between cinema and literature, into celluloid’s body of all the sea-movies of the past. “Free!”, he said himself. And here is Ramos’ Captain Ahab (Capitaine Achab), winner of the FIPRESCI Prize at the 60th Locarno International Film Festival.

Five Chapters, Five Narrators

Chapter one: “The Father”. The black. A close-up of a female sex. A sheet, like Gustave Courbet’s “L’origine du monde”. It’s the white body of Ahab’s mother: She’s dead. Ahab (Virgil Leclaire) is an orphan, hoping that white body will surface again and again from the depths, like in a cinematographic illusion, or on a research expedition for a white whale, perhaps. A new black screen. Now, it’s the world of the father (Jean-François Stevenin), the reality of the woods. And “I’m a hunter, like my father!”, says Ahab. A young beautiful girl, Louise (Hande Kodja). She’s fallen in love for Ahab’s old father, she’s fallen in love for a young painter à la Peter Greenaway in the woods. The love triangle. The father’s murder. Ahab, once again an orphan. The soundtrack’s popular-philological music and the British-pop-music, in a brilliant code-switch, are not much consolation.

Chapter two: “Rose” (Mona Heftre), the pious sister of Ahab’s mother. In the depths of her mind, in her mind-sea, the desires of sex. On the screen, the mind swims and visualizes the fragments of pleasure: Jean-Auguste-Dominique-Ingres’ “L’Odalisque”. Then, Ahab’s aunt marries a dandy. The beauty of nature, the violence and pleasure. New surprise: Philippe Ramos embraces the language of Terrence Malick and Jane Campion, and says goodbye to French cinema. To find favor with the critics? To get good reviews? Ramos is an eclectic hunter, and not an auteur! And that’s the movie-ocean, dear boys.

Chapter three, chapter four: “Mulligan” and “Anna”. The same cinematographic-harpoon in Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon — the freedom in the transposition of a text-whale. It takes courage to do this. “You’re not scared?” “I’m free”, says Ahab. Another surprise: Ahab was a poor boy, and now Ahab is Ahab, c’est à dire is the Captain Ahab (Denis Lavant), without his leg. Thank Kubrick: from the monkey-bone to the spacecraft in 2001: A Space Odyssey, history is collapsed into an eye-blink; history is cinema-decoupage. Ahab’s adventures? An ellipsis. “So, you’re the Captain!”. Anna (Dominique Blanc) takes care of Ahab. She’s fallen in love. The terrible hunt? Moby Dick? Ahab says: “An accident”. Yes, a shocking cinematographic-ellipsis, a clever touch. Poor Anna: “From now, Ahab is mine!”, she thinks. But his white mother — sorry: his white whale — lies in wait. Death and passion, and Gabriel Fauré’s “Requiem Op. 48” is for Ahab a subliminal reminder.

Chapter five, the end: “Starbuck” (Jacques Bonnaffe). Melville strikes back, Moby Dick too. Gone are the huckleberry adventures, gone are the woods, gone are the women: Finally, we have our minimalist sea adventure. Ahab’s obsession is something like hope. The hope of the depths, the end of the journey. The whale has kidnapped him, and “I want to stay with you”, thinks the Captain. It will be a fight to the finish. The harpoon, a rope, the ship, a white whale named Moby Dick, a Captain vanished in the depths. The sea on the screen, and that is all. Ramos’ cinematic style blows up: freedom and visual pleasure, from start to finish. “I’m proud of you, Ahab”, says the faithful Starbuck. It’s a farewell. We’re proud of you, Philippe Ramos.