There is a languid brilliance to Chloé Mazlo’s first feature Sous le ciel d’Alice/Skies of Lebanon (2020). Chloé graduated from Arts Décoratifs in Strasbourg in 2007 - her final year production L’amour m’anime was selected by over 20 festivals and shown on Canal+ and in 2015, her animated short Les Petits cailloux took the César that same year for best animated film. This is a film that is very much based on her love affair with her grandmother’s homeland and a search to understand how one can fall in love with a country that was not theirs to know by birth.
The film charts the arrival in Lebanon of a young Swiss girl Alice (Alba Rohrwacher) where she was offered a position as a nanny, where, she met Joseph (Wajdi Mouawad) a rocket engineer. The two fall in love and spun their own dreams and hopes; until the civil war breaks out to destroy the couple’s aspirations.
Alba and Wajdi had a gentleness about them, they were a good on-screen couple; beautiful together - softly-spoken, their tenderness was palpable. I first saw Alba in Luca Guadagnino beautiful film I Am Love ( 2009) which I reviewed many years ago; she has hardly aged. Here as Alice in this film, she is in a vastly different landscape from that of the Alps. Her looks, her voice, her dress is as singular as it is exotic; it is no wonder that Joseph falls madly for her. Wadji (whose face I’ve seen but can’t place and I only know him through his incredible play Incendies(2010) - which Denis Villeneuve made into a film) who plays Joseph on the other hand is solemn, quiet, dedicated but also romantic and kind.
Chloé cleverly contrasts the subtle performances of these two actors with Lebanese actors who are vibrant, colourful and loud to produce an interesting ensemble of characters. During the screening, I was seated close to a Lebanese family, who had brought their grandparents and children to see the film, as well as food and hot drinks, chatting softly amongst themselves in parts, I rather enjoyed this shared experience with them.
|Alba Rohrwacher (Alice), Skies of Lebanon|
The lens through which Mazlo told her story is reminiscent of directors such as Wes Anderson or Rita Azevedo Gomes, with a particular use of mise-en-scène that adds to not just the aesthetics but the overall feel as well as the way in which the narrative developed.
Perhaps it was her pastel toned palette along with the interplay between painted backdrops, animation and live action. When watching this film, you can’t help but feellike we’re invited into Chloé’s own personal story; that it is her history and her grandmother’s life that is unfolding in front of our eyes.
It is Beirut in the 50s from the memories of her grandmother, who was born Swiss, but went to work in Lebanon during that period and called it her home. In an interview, Chloé tells of the way she would would use photos and memories from her family members to enrich the story; and would deliberately take little objects from daily life, like the tiny coffee cups, so typical of that period and found in every household, to act as Proust’s madeleine - to open the flood of memories for those from Lebanon in that era.
Mazlo’s background and achievements as an animator also guided her discourse, she would ‘show’ rather than use dialogue to ‘tell’ a part of the story; and with an interesting use of music. One of her chief collaborators is composer Bachar Khalifé who treated each instrument like a character in the film. They each had a voice and, whether the voices sang in harmony or are discordant with each other, tell a story in and of itself.
|Wajdi Mouawad (centre) Alba Rohrwacher (right), Skies of Lebanon|
The fascination of sounds carries through to the next film; but here we find that there is a fascination in the technical aspect of sound as well, especially in what the French call an acousticien as a profession. Just like in Le chant du loup (Antonin Baudry, 2019), where the best technicians can detect even the slightest disturbance detected by the sonar radar, the ‘pings’ mean something...and can warn of any imminent attacks from stealth subs nearby.
Yann Gozlan’s Boîte noire/Black Box (2020) is a story in the same vein, and follows an obsessive but talented acoustics analyst who works for the Bureau of Analysis and Research of France (BEA) - a real organisation in France that specialises in the recovery and analysis of the information contained in an aircraft’s black box. They can also analyse the sound from video footage as well as other media. But the crux of this analysis is to excise the information from the ‘sonic’ side of the event - pulses, mhz, speed etc; rather than in what you can see.
The sounds in an incident or event are all present and, with the help of technology, by isolating certain elements like ambient noise or by bringing up the higher frequencies etc, it can alter the way we hear the sounds. However, it is the human who interprets, AI or machine learning cannot replace what the human mind does - which is to make sense of the noise. To make meaning of something is indeed a uniquely human trait. But this also means that we’re in danger of misinterpretation; we can read something into what is otherwise a straight forward scenario.
|Pierre Niney, Black Box|
Pierre Niney was very believable as this obsessive technician. Incidentally, I caught him the other night on SBS on Demand in Through the Fire (Frédéric Tellier, 2018) where he played a fireman who after being caught in a horrific accident somehow finds his road to recovery in a heart breaking but beautifully rendered film inspired by true events from the Paris pompiers. Also, last year, I caught him in Ozon’s film Frantz (2016), see my review here. Niney is a sensitive and versatile actor; and if you haven’t seen his version of Yves Saint Laurent (Jalil Lespert, 2014), you should. It is full of exactness, flair and precision; and so different from Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent (2014) with Gaspard Ulliel as Laurent which is full of excess, indulgence and underlying tension.
It’s interesting to note that Niney also joined the Comédie-Française troupe when he was only twenty-one, making him the youngest in the troupe.
|The set for Black Box|
There are good support casts; but I found Lou de Laâge to be a little cloying; I can only hold onto an image of her from Anne Fontaine’s The Innocents (2014). She was raw and believable in that film. The well-known André Dussollier and Olivier Rabourdin were also in the cast.
Whilst this is a great thriller, with lots of twists and turns that can run an audience’s emotions high and low, it is not a masterwork like that of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), still the best film on ‘acousticiens’ I have ever had the pleasure to see.