Prince charming falls from the sky


The respected, eccentric Italian documentarian Pietro Marcello garnered further fame and admiration through his large-scale 2019 Italian language adaptation of the Jack London novel Martin Eden. Now for a second feature, set a little later in the early twentieth century right after World War I, he switches to the French language, and a smaller canvas. L'envol ("flying away"), is freely adapted from Scarlet Sails, a 1923 Russian novel by Alexander Grin. Described as a fairy tale for adults and children alike, it is two stories, both earthy and fanciful: the coming of age tale of Juliette (Juliette Jouan, in a striking debut, with four younger actresses), a girl of peasant origins who rises to higher things and finds a romantic boyfriend who literally falls from the sky; and the travails of RaphaŽl, her soulful, earthbound dad, who "works with wood," but never gets his due as a fine craftsman.

The new movie is thick with Marcello's documentary atmosphere, hybrid use of new 16mm footage and (ever more skillfully) blended-in archival film background, and elaborated with some musical numbers ŗ la Jacques Demy with songs by the Lebanese-French composer Gabriel Yared. A lot to chew on, at times a bit much but sometimes impressively original and rich in texture - if not enough to hide the conventional storyline and some corny romantic moments, or the fact that despite vivid surfaces, there are lacunae in the narrative. Flaws aside, you don't normally get anything this rich and unique at the cineplex, and if you can see it in a theater, you my all means should.

The opening half hour is dominated by two well-weathered and salty adults. First is RaphaŽl (RaphaŽl Thiťry, the ogreish father in Giradudie's Staying Vertical) who looks like John C. Reilly only squatter and uglier and with a limp that's sometimes more of a jaunty hobble. He wanders into the village, apparently left over from the Great War, and meets Madame Adeline (actress-director Noťmie Lvovsky, in earth-mother mode and having a grand time). She is the landlady of his former house, living in it now and caring for a little girl she tells him is his daughter, all that's left him since his wife, it appears, is dead.

Why and how that happened and whether the child is really legitimate, since the gone wife was violated by someone in town, are things to be hashed over in those opening segments when the the only music is RaphaŽl's plaintive but vigorous little accordion. A lot of this may not matter so much later - sometimes Marcello seems to lose sight of the big picture - but it's all thoroughly absorbing while it's going on. We're in that mix of authenticity and high camp of Barri's 1980's Pagnol remakes, with Marcello's own documentary edge added and Marco Graziaplena's closeup-intense and lushly colorful 16mm cinematography heightening Thiťry's and Lvovsky's compelling if slightly hammy performances.

There's a fairytale element throughout in addition to the down-to-earth tone, traced through magic along with the film's feel-good storyline. Madame Adeline practices necromancy and "seeing" and draws little Juliette into it. This strain sounds a deeper note in the white-haired worker of spells (known as "La magicienne") who dwells in the forest and river, played by French cinema's no. 1 earth mother, Yolande Moreau, who as it happens played Noťmie Lvovsky's mother in Lvovsky's own Camille Rewinds a decade ago. Contrast these kinds of women's rural spell-weaving with the practical magic RaphaŽl can simply work with his hands, repairing and tuning an old piano and making finely crafted dolls he sells in the city, when his carpentry skills aren't appreciated locally. But whether or not the spells work, RaphaŽl is doomed to have a hard time. Eventually as the years go by the dolls go out of style, replaced by metal and electrical toys. What happens to Juliette is harder to pinpoint and her character, though cherished, is less fully developed. She flourishes, sings, plays the piano, swims, and is happy, although she is scorned as a "witch", not entirely explicably, by the villagers.

These problems remain - Juliette's low reputation, RaphaŽl's struggle to earn a livelihood - but the focus shifts in the second half to romance. Juliette's prince charming appears in the dashing, handsome form of Jean (a mustachioed Louis Garrel, charming as always), a young "adventurer" who comes out of the sky when his one-engine prop plane is brought down by a carburetor problem. He says in his defense that he is not an adventurer but works, using his plane. But what he actually does is never explained.

Jean and Juliette first meet in a studied romantic set piece while both are bathing alone in the river, with her singing. She takes the lead and kisses him. He is smitten. He learns in the village later how they mock and exclude her and her family. Why she has this reputation is as unclear as what has become of her earlier intellectual promise, except that when RaphaŽl gives her a choice as a young girl whether or not to go away for a better education she decides to stay.

Much later RaphaŽl, still desperate for work after all these years, is awarded the challenging job of making the figurehead for a boat, painstakingly hand-carving it out of a large block of wood. It's admittedly an archaic ornament, a last sad hope of proving to the village wood craftsmen, as he's tried to for years, that he's gifted at "working with wood" and worthy of employment. But he is at the end of his tether and his physical strength and this turns out to be too much for him.

Though Juliette is first to kiss Jean, she drives him away - and then regrets it. All this haas something to do with red sails that appear beyond the forests, and magic, or hexes, that will bring Jean back to Juliette in a downed plane, and Madame Adeline's muscular spells get Jean's smashed legs working quickly again, after his second, rougher descent from the sky. Jean and Juliette are united now. Marcello's film remains true to its earthy fairytale style.

This may float your boat, or it may not. I was all in early on, absorbed by Thiťry and Lvovsky's gnarly vividness and the hybrid recreations of period. Later the narrative was marred somewhat by what reviewer (in Playlist) called a "muddled pace." In the love of vivid moments, narrative links are forgotten. But Marcello has produced another wholly sui generis film, which at its best moments is headily atmospheric and a delight to the eye and ear and Garrel and newcomer Jouan make a lovely couple.

Scarlet/L'envol,, 100 mins., debuted in Cannes Directors' Fortnight May 18, 2022. Also Rome, Vienna, Seville, Stockholm and other festivals, Metacritic rating: 74%.AlloCinť press rating 3.2 (64%). US theatrical release by Kino Lorber beginning June 9, 2023. Now playing in New York (IFC Center) and in Los Angeles from Jun. 23, 2023. Coming to the Bay Area July 7.