A week of the current French Film Festival has left me with a very benign attitude to France. Yes, they did nuke Muraroa but having a Cinémathèque for eighty years meant they produced great film makers who got to dominate the foreign language movie market and now their children are turning into great film makers who will hang on to that status.
Put alongside his De toutes nos forces/The Finishers Nils Tavernier's new L'incroyable histoire du facteur Cheval/The Ideal Palace repeats his Don Quixote thing - crazy fixations become admirable.
As Nineteenth Century Drôme area postman Cheval, a barely recognisable Jacques Gamblin is painfully withdrawn. He even has to be coaxed into the graveside crowd for his wife’s funeral and spooks some of the customers on his route who ask Postmaster Bernard Le Coq to deliver their mail personally. Gamblin even let’s his in-laws take his young son away to be raised in the city. “Fin de discutation!”
Two things however change his life. When they extend his run, he passes a widow, the normally glamorous Laetitia Casta and, one thing after another, they end up married. She likes the way he’s shifted the bed next to the window. When the baby arrives, despite some “I don’t know what to do with children” he and daughter Zelie Rixhon become devoted.
Next up he spots an odd shaped rock and is soon putting it and more like it together in the space that used to be Casta’s vegetable garden. Inspired by undelivered scenic postcards and his background as a dough kneading baker he mortar and wires together an exotic decorated stone “palace.” As Gamblin ages, the structure grows.
Gamblin manages to fit in the stone palace, his postal round and his family duties so that by the time he’s got a postal service medal for trudging five times round the earth in thirty-two kilometer a day sections, the edifice has stopped being a source of mockery and has become a wonder that attracts ticket buying tourists and press photographers. His grown son’s family join in. Complete with Easter Island influences, the Palace has curiously taken on the appearance of the L.A. Watts Towers. Gamblin somehow becomes conflated with Dreyfus.
This is played in scrupulous period detail and subdued colour with the action pausing every so often for rural scenics. The climax comes with a music-backed camera circling the extraordinary structure and an imposing drone pull away - but that’s not all folks! The piece also runs to the granddaughter’s wedding held on the site continuing into a mystic, candle lit night.
It’s nice to see the younger Tavernier keeping dad Bertand’s old associates in employment. Jaques Gamblin was the lead in Laissez-passer/Safe Conductand Bernard Le Coq is as imposing the new film as he was in Capitain Conan despite having a more confined space to operate in. The ageing by Gamblin and his make-up team deserve a special award.
I don’t know that I’d like to see another one but Facteur Cheval is a virtuoso exercise managing to make what is basically gloomy material end up strangely winning. Their comment that Cheval’s folly has outlasted most of the more rational projects of the day does register.