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NYFF 2015. "Les cowboys" and the Art of the Homage

A remake of John Ford's "The Searchers" spawns the question, "What’s the purpose of making a movie inspired by another movie?"
What’s the purpose of making a movie inspired by another movie? Usually it’s best to remake an imperfect film in order to refine some brilliant nugget left unexamined in the original. But remaking a masterpiece seems bound to failure (Let Gus van Sant’s Psycho forever stand as the monument for this inauspicious strategy). So I was worried when I first heard about this film: a modern-day French homage to The Searchers, one of my favorite movies? In the John Ford original, a father-like figure spends years obsessively hunting down a girl who was kidnapped by Comanches; in Thomas Bidegain’s Les cowboys, a father spends years obsessively hunting down his daughter who ran away to become a Muslim fundamentalist.
That being said, Les cowboys is a really good movie—I’ll get to that—but it raises questions about what it is, exactly, that you’re paying homage to when you pay homage to a film. Most filmmakers seem to instinctively assume that they’re remaking a story about particular characters and that their most significant decisions about formal adaptation will be about updating the style for a contemporary audience—usually so that the mise en scène and acting style will more closely fit the arbitrary contemporary cultural assumptions about what feels “realistic.” In this sense, remakes are usually quite conservative in that they’re merely appealing to—rather than challenging—modern mainstream tastes.
A more intellectually complex strategy might be to remake a film by recreating its formal systems and thematic concerns with an entirely different plot. This approach may, in fact, explain why auteurism remains so fascinating to us: so many of the old directors we love were essentially paying homage – repeatedly—to their own platonic vision of a film (Hawks and Ozu very explicitly remade character types and philosophical stances, while others like Minelli may have been more interested in replicating their own expressive virtuosity). Someone paying homage to The Searchers, then, wouldn’t have to make a movie about a group of men tracking down a kidnapped girl; he could have just as easily make a family drama about Filipino immigrants in California. But most filmmakers inspired by The Searchers—Paul Schrader with Taxi Driver or Hardcore, for instance—simply recreate this narrative structure, as if the movie is all feverish obsession and nothing else. But these plot-centric filmmakers, it seems to me, are missing out on the film’s most vital essence. One of the reasons that The Searchers bears up to so many repeat viewings is that John Ford—an unacknowledged equal to Hitchcock in terms of formal sophistication—deployed so many complex methods of conveying ideas purely through cinematic form. In The Searchers, for instance, he hints that Ethan Edwards and his brother’s wife Martha were in love with each other back before the Civil War just by staging their movements in one wordless scene in which he watches her gently folding his coat. And he suggests that Martha’s daughter Debbie may, in fact, be Ethan’s child, simply by repeatedly showing Debbie and Martha together in the frame—most emphatically when he shows just those two, and no one else from the family, standing in the frame to watch Ethan as he rides away to what might be his doom.
So while I enjoyed Les cowboys on purely entertainment grounds throughout the first half of the film, I was disappointed that Bidegain and screenwriter Noé Debré didn’t seem aware of—or interested in—Ford’s stylistically communicative strategies in the original. If you study Ford’s opening sequence, for instance, you can see by one fitful glance that Martha is surprisingly anxious about Ethan’s return home, and by placing Debbie on the opposite side of the frame from her siblings, you can get a sense—only on repeated viewings—of where that anxiety is coming from. But Bidegain’s opening sequence seems wholly unaware of these expressive possibilities: he opens his movie—oddly—almost entirely with close-ups of people buttoning up their Western outfits, a motif that evokes nothing of the themes that are to come. 
But, about halfway through the film—and here I’m about to lay down some heavy spoilers, Dear Reader—Bidegain and Debré made one brilliant twist on the Ford film that made me realize that they were, in fact, engaging intellectually with the original—on thematic and political grounds, if not formal. Their re-imagining of The Searchers comes about when they suddenly and unexpectedly kill of the film’s protagonist—the father, Alain, the stand-in for John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards. Then, the story picks up again a few years later as Alain’s son Kid, now a young man—the stand in for the earlier film’s character of Martin Pawley—becomes the new protagonist. This struck me as an incisive choice, because Martin Pawley, not Ethan Edwards, is actually the pivotal figure in the Ford film. Thus, when Kid takes up his father’s obsession—without the overbearing personality of the father forcing him to do so—the filmmakers are able to open up some of the possibilities of The Searchers that John Ford left unexplored.
One of problems that some people have with The Searchers is that we see the story almost exclusively through white eyes—though, to be fair, this really is the problem with almost all Westerns. But through this narrative shift, Bidegain and Debré have enabled the audience to see the European world through the eyes of the ethnic other in a couple surprising ways. By killing off the protagonist midway, the filmmakers forced themselves to change the ending of the original as well, extending Ford’s poetically suggestive conclusion into a much more thorough exploration of the original’s unresolved tensions. The Searchers has a beautiful finale in which Ford once again conveys complex ideas without his characters uttering a word: Martin Pawley and Ethan Edwards return Debbie back to so-called white civilization, but as Debbie steps over the threshold into her new home, she glances anxiously at the white strangers who are allegedly rescuing her, representatives of the community that has just massacred her Indian family, and then the screen fades to black. So, while Ford provides the happy surface ending that Hollywood required, the conclusion is actually quite harrowing. Les cowboys, then, takes this kernel of a critique of white civilization’s endemic racism and amplifies it, adding another act where the original left off.
After Kid travels to the tribal areas of Pakistan in pursuit of his sister years after she went missing and thinks that he’s finally found her, he accidentally shoots her husband and through a series of unlikely circumstances, brings this man’s second wife back home with him to France. Thus, by following the story of this young woman Shazhana, Bidegain and Debré reveal to us what Debbie from The Searchers might have gone through had Ford decided to extend his story a few more years, making very real her isolation and the prejudice that she has to face in an alien environment. And he makes clear—in a way that was only suggested in the original—that her only option in this hostile environment is the simultaneously creepy but beautiful decision to marry the man who killed her husband. But, given this productive reimagining of the original text, my major concern was that the filmmakers didn’t go far enough. We see Shazhana sitting forlornly alone, making stilted small talk with her new mother-in-law, for instance, but we never really get to see through her eyes and she never gets to voice her opinions at any great length. Even in this French coda, Kid still remains the focus of the story, not her.
At the same time, by making Shazhana a stand-in for Debbie, the new film also, ironically, makes Kid a stand-in for Ethan Edward’s Comanche nemesis, Scar, the man who kidnapped her in the beginning of the film and presumably made her his wife. By killing her husband and taking her back home to France, Kid has either saved her or kidnapped her, depending on your interpretation. In this sense, he’s acted more or less the same way that Scar did with Debbie when he killed her family and took her to live with him. So, even more so than in The Searchers, we get to see the world through Scar’s eyes—even if only metaphorically. In a subtle way, Bidegain and Debré have humanized the invader by making the invader the white man rather than the ethnic other. By prompting us to identify emotionally with Kid, the filmmakers reveal—in a way that Ford could only hint at—that Scar operates under the same logic as his white antagonists.
So, I came around to like Les cowboys quite a bit partly because I came to realize how intellectually engaged it was with its inspiration. But that being said, the more I came to respect Les cowboys, the more I came to love The Searchers even more. Ford didn’t have to add a coda to his supposedly happy ending precisely because he fashioned a conclusion that in one wordless scene suggested a future much more harrowing than Thomas Bidegain was able to invoke with an extra thirty minutes of screen time. If the next generation of filmmakers inspired by Ford’s masterpiece took as its starting point his virtually silent opening and closing scenes, we might finally get an homage even more interesting than this one.

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