The Living World

in 47th BFI London Film Festival

by Tom Charity

A work of consummate strangeness from Eugène Green — an American-born director who fled ‘Barbaria’ (as he calls it) for France in his early 20s, and shows no sign of ever having been exposed to Hollywood. His second film (after “Toutes les nuits”, 2001) was shot on a shoestring budget with a meagre cast and crew. The production was rescued by the Dardenne brothers, who secured funding for post-production.

It’s a quest story. Nicholas, a young man in jeans and sneakers sets off through a forest. He meets a similarly dressed man with what looks like a dog. “I am the chevalier des Lions”, the man says. His sword betokens his status. And his lion, of course. He explains that he is journeying to a castle to battle a child-eating ogre – a fate which also awaits our hero, should he but know it.

Filmed in simple, fixed compositions and close-ups, with minimal, ascetic mise-en-scene, “The Living World” (Le monde vivant) brings a medieval fable to life before our eyes. Bresson is the obvious influence, and especially (obviously) “Lancelot du Lac”, but Green’s film also has a playful wit about it, a sense of its own bravura. Two duels with the ogre are accomplished in a series of simple close-ups: feet and hands (a hairy paw). Borowczyk’s “La Bete” comes to mind. Even a hint of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”.

Which is not to say that the film is flippant. Far from it. It’s very deeply concerned with sound, language, and the power of words, which carry an enormous weight here. Because the chevalier’s dog roars, we accept it is a lion. Because the Demoiselle de la Chapelle has given her vow, she will remain faithful to the ogre even though she despises him. (And then there’s hushed talk of the terrifying Lacanian witch.) The ogre is a liar, of course. But for Nicholas, words are sacred, in words – in that fine old English word ‘troth’, which bespeaks a vow, trust and fidelity – there is salvation.

Of all the films in the London festival (and I’d estimate I saw more than 40) this was the most unexpected, the purest, the least in thrall to fashion and commerce, the most peculiar and beguiling. We will be hearing more from Eugne Green.