Eugène Green's new film may surprise by its serene and tender conclusion and by the softening of the director's rules of mise en scène, as if he had eventually found a way to become some peaceful "old master," reconciled with his own style and willing to pass on his knowledge with the right dose of modesty and affection. Would that be his own "sapienza"?
Starting with a wonderfully accurate satire of institutional and media speech (like a film version of a Barthes' Mythologie) in which successful architect Alexandre and his sociologist wife Aliénor find themselves entrapped, the film sends the estranged couple on a journey to study baroque architecture master Francesco Borromini. Near Borromini's hometown in Ticino (how relevant in Locarno!) they meet another "couple," a brother willing to study architecture and a sister suffering from a mysterious languidness. Aliénor decides to stay close to the girl, suggesting that Alexandre takes the brother with him. While Alexandre takes the young man on a trip to Torino and Roma to visit the main creations of Borromini's genius, slowing developing a master-disciple relationship, Aliénor and the girl experience other forms of revelations, confronting themselves with dark thoughts and deep secrets, fighting their Thanatos in solidarity.
Maybe more than in his previous films, Green puts a question of language at the center of the script and the mise en scène. The French dialog follows more radically than ever his iron laws of pronunciation, as inspired by his experience in baroque theater. Making all the liaisons between words (native French speaking audience will certainly enjoy things like "ton discours-z-était très bien,"or "bientôt- t' -en France") is here pushed to the extreme, at the risk of ridicule.
Too bad Green was not as precise with the Italian part of the dialog: strangely enough, the three members of a same family (brother, sister and their mother) each speak a different Italian, while Aliénor visibly suffers with the double consonants and the tonic accent. The director could also have better fought his own American inflections while playing himself (with fake Oriental accent in French) a curious prophet of lost cultures and a witness of a world at war.
But the important truth is that more than in his previous works, Green's haughty approach results in attitudes and expressions from the actors that prevent any of the "psychological" tricks the story could have engendered. It creates forms of body language that are strictly consistent with the framing and help the emotion and the interest of the viewer concentrate upon what is deeply at stake: the constant threat upon language. A danger of being emptied and become a mere mechanic of communication. The "villains" of the film (local representatives and bureaucrats, journalists, a caricatural Australian and a bunch of snobs at the Villa Medicis, in one of Green's funniest over-the-top caricature episodes) are menaces to languages as expression of thought and feeling, hence to culture. And this becomes (also) clear through the other language of the film: the grammar and vocabulary of architecture as embodied by Borromini. In Torino and Roma, Alexandre and the film deliver one of the most visually accurate and beautiful lesson about Borromini's work and philosophy. For at the end of the road is light, and a renewed acceptance of life.
In a beautiful chiaroscuro sequence, Alexandre dreams he is Borromini and commits suicide like the baroque master did, in a darkness that gives its full fruitfulness to melancholia. From the understanding to the acceptance of light, from light to the possibility of transmission: Alexandre will teach. "The source of beauty is love and the source of knowledge is light, going back to the sources is sapienza." When the couples reunite in Ticino, love, the wish to love and live, and the urge to go back to the "company of men" can eventually be the foundation of Aliénor and Alexandre's future, while brother and sister can serenely leave their childhood love behind to enter each his/her future as individuals. Green's film is probably his easiest to date, the richest and the warmest. Being also a manifesto on how language is the real theater of ideas and feelings, and a fragile and endangered foundation of humanity, the film walks a thin line when facing its audience, bravely running the risk to be misunderstood or partly / superficially understood by those who do not follow the original version in all its subtleties (the risk of private jokes). But it is worth the challenge: Green's approach is not about witticism nor about mots d'auteur, it is about language as a matter of life and death, of light versus darkness.