Saturday 5 June 2021

Streaming on MUBI - Janice Tong recommends BURNING GHOST/VIF-AGENT (Stéphane Batut, France, 2020)

Thimotée Robart as Juste in a poignant moment
Burning Ghost

From one ghost to the next…this debut feature film from a well-known Parisian casting director
 Stéphane Batut was selected to screen at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival and won the prestigious Prix Jean-Vigo in that year as well. (Previous Vigo winners included Godard for À bout de souffle (1960) and Maurice Pialat for L’Enfance nue (1968). 

It is an unassuming film, where we follow Juste (played by new-comer Thimotée Robart), a ghost, through the streets of Paris. The people who can see him are those who have just died, but have not as yet passed over. This premise reminds me of a long-forgotten film by one of my favourite directors, Hirokazu Kore-eda, that I had once had a copy of, taped from TV to VHS, called After Life (1998), where a group of people gathered in a house. They were in limbo themselves, but in this place, they served as guides to help the recently deceased find a memory that they would like to take to their after life. 

Vif-agent’s narrative (I prefer the quicksilver metaphor of its French title) is very similar in that Juste guides the retrieval of that singular memory; this memory serves as the passcode if you like; for the ‘travellers’ to cross over. But this film is also very different to a ghost story, and not in the vein of the American takes Sixth Sense (1999) or Ghost (1990) in that it is more of a coming-of-age story for a ghost.

Judith Chemla as Agathe, Burning Ghost

Many years later, Juste (much more at home in his role) falls in love with Agathe, a girl he’d met before and had a love affair with in his living years. He follows her home, as he was more determined than ever to be happy, to be in love, to have them start again. He had left her to go travelling the world before, and now he sees this as a second chance in life. 

The film revolves around an axis of the seen and unseen. Where desire is visible, love invisible; speech audible, thoughts inaudible; you appear to me, but your face is of this otherness I cannot enter into.

The enigmatic Juste wearing his "girlfriend’s" jacket

There’s a wonderful love scene with an invisible Juste - it doesn’t serve as a comedic pause, but a thoughtful scene about love and loss. Batut talks about “anchoring this scene” with a piece of clothing - Agathe’s black sequined jacket, which Juste wears for the rest of the film; and serves as a reminder of his encounter with love. And like most things, the taxi rides, metro trips, passages of Juste walking, even memories of one’s childhood, the transience of life means that we’ve already arrived on the shores of the River Styx. It’s a comforting thought that Juste would be there waiting.

Shooting Vif-agent. A woman is trying to recall a girlhood memory

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