An instance of radical lo-fi homespun cinema: actress Isild Le Besco's short feature directorial debut, Demi-tarif. It stars four children, two young girls (Cindy David, Lila Salet), a boy (Kolia Litscher)...and Le Besco's camera. The three actors, each character from a different father, are stranded in Paris without their mother, and the only supervision they have is by the filmmaker's handheld, consumer DV camera (shot by the director's brother). The camera naturally becomes a spiritual and physical collaborator and cohort in the children's free-wheeling bohemian existence. They steal food and clown and play—not at being a real family, but at playing at being a family (or an enclave or a utopia).
The tender magnificence of this small video is that Le Besco and her collaborators—as there can be no doubt the children in their camera-aware parading are co-authors of the film—are not filming a fantasy film, children set free to scrounge Paris independent of adults, dialog, or story, but rather they are staging a fantasy film. Demi-tarif, with its handheld, low-resolution images of startling freshness and fiction, is a home movie pitched as a fantasy-feature. There is no subtitled dialog (probably for the best, since the children clearly can't "act"), only Le Besco's own precious-nostalgic narration, an art-school project laid on top of the video to barely re-connect and re-contextualize the reality (the kids and the two Le Besco's fooling around improvising an unclever but spontaneous fantasy of the world) as a kind of found-film artifact.
It calls to mind Chris Marker—to my mind specifically L'ambassade (1973), but I'm sure you can find your own echoes. The difference is the intimacy engendered by the beautiful-lousy photography (predicting such digital looks as that of INLAND EMPIRE), the obvious preening of the actors, the shabbily poetic obviousness of the desire to avoid a story and characters. In short: it's something new, untethered, digital, exciting. Except it's not; the film is from 2003, eight years old, and Le Besco has already made two more videos in the meantime, and remains undiscovered here in the States outside her roles as an actress in Benoît Jacquot's films. The Film Society of Lincoln Center has done a daring and notable intervention by putting on a micro-retrospective of her work for their 2011 iteration of Film Comment Selects.
Her second feature, 2007's Charly, which narrowly escaped to the US for a weak festival run, tightens everything in Demi-tarif that was left unstructured, undetailed, a bit too cute and unreal, and pushes it forward, developing it while still retaining the haphazard unfolding of images, the tender concentration on bodies, clothing, small domestic spaces and the sound of city streets.
A semblance of a story, this time: a lumpen, indifferent and lazy teenager (Kolia Litscher again) is inspired by a postcard left behind in a copy of Frank Wedekind's Spring Awakening to leave the torpid home of his grandparents and hit the road. His journey to the island on the card is halted by the plodding apathy of this marvelous creation of adolescent malaise, who gets left in a small town and is promptly picked up and absorbed into the routine of a young prostitute, the titular Charly (Julie-Marie Parmentier).
The myopic details of Paris in Demi-tarif expands remarkably to the landscape of the countryside, the same ugly digital telling tales of small town lanes, roadside fields, and the light in the morning (and late morning) one would be hard-pressed to find in any cinema, let alone the chilly video-diary sensual intimacy of Le Besco. The fit of clothing and the hominess of bedrooms and a trailer all are caught casually in a mode similar to that of the first film: found home movies, nearly, everything lived in, from Litscher's misshapen fire-engine red henley to his untied boots and shortcuts through soil that the characters seem to have walked insolently for years.
And indeed, the major addition and breakthrough of the film over Demi-tarif are the characters; more precisely, Parmentier's insistent chatterbox (Litscher remains in the mode of the first film, that of the poetic non-expression of French youths who "look beautiful" just by "being"—still, his monotone answers and brief, undirected grins make for a few human insights beyond his magnificently shapeless body). The young actress quickly owns the film as she owns the boy, demanding he (and we) follow her gaze, her orders, her routine so that she may have a companion and some semblance of control and power in her humiliatingly modest life. The film's vision of her is captured with an understated, sharp humor along with a sympathy retained through the film; Parmentier's idiosyncratic energy and personality are an expression of a youth who has molded her unhappy and unnatural life into one of control and regiment.
One might think the opposite of Isild le Besco's nascent cinema, an actress freed from being directed by directing freely. I missed my chance to see her latest film, Bas-fonds, but our friend Dan Sallitt caught it and has written briefly with an enthusiasm that has me as excited for her new work as I was when I first discovered Charly in 2007. Keep your eyes peeled.
All images are from Demi-tarif, cinematography by Jowan Le Besco.