MARIE BAIE DES ANGES (Manuel Pradal, 1997)

A brilliant feature debut, Manuel Pradal’s Marie Baie des Anges is about homeless, reckless youths at loose on the Riviera. Philippe Rousselot, the great color cinematographer of Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Diva (1981) and Alain Cavalier’s Thérèse (1986), produced the film.

This is a genuine film. It proceeds by shots rather than scenes. No narrative drives the film; instead, the film drives the narrative.

What we are shown is a doomed adolescent romance à la Bonnie and Clyde that the film’s lightness and buoyancy make all the more heartrending. For Marie Baie des Anges catches on the breathless run—its title, too, might have been A bout de souffle (Jean-Luc Godard, 1959)—the quick burst of poignancy that is youth. Gorgeously lensed by Christophe Pollock, Pradal’s film is radiant and in almost perpetual, sometimes dizzying motion, the camera a bird, or a rabbit, keeping apace with the fleet and aggressive children. The result is highly charged, kinetic.

Stylistically, Pradal’s antecedents are Godard at his most playful and Jean Renoir when most in the manner of his august père, Pierre Auguste. But other influences can also be detected. The structure of the film, for instance, may owe something to Luis Buñuel’s The Phantom of Liberty (1974) and Milcho Manchevski’s Before the Rain (1994); for the film begins near the end of its narrative and curves back around, with echoes dissolving into new material and new material dissolving into echoes.

The film opens on a tour of the Mediterranean. Two imposing rocks, a voiceover tells us, long ago frightened away invaders, who mistook them for shark fins; at the same time, actual sharks so terrorized the locals that they annually sacrificed a child to appease the beasts. In sum, these sacrifices represent abandoned, lost children over whose watery grave the two rocks now stand as markers. Pradal intends his film to commemorate the sacrificed children of today.

On their perilous own are 17-year-old Orso (Frédéric Malgras, feral and handsome, but with bags already under his eyes) and 15-year-old Marie (lithe, heartstoppingly beautiful Vahina Giocante, whose slightly turned-down mouth, a mortal insignia, hints Jeanne Moreau). Outcasts among outcasts, the two fall in love. Theirs is a surreal world of cool, violent energy; fluid and afoot, they’re part of the beauteous Nature they bound about in. Orso is a thief; Marie, a prostitute, is working her way through an American military base. But falling in love with Orso changes her; now she wants only to be with him. After taking off with Orso, Marie returns to the Americans only once, and only because Orso—who, absent any proprietary sense, also lacks sexual jealousy—asks her to, to steal for him a service pistol. The outcrop: a robbery that goes awry, and Marie’s death.

This climax is open to the charge that it appears, at least, to intrude neat narrative elements which in fact oppose, and contradict, the film’s exuberant poetry. This is not the case, however. What might seem a lapse into convenient irony and coincidence—prosaic convention—is itself expressive. One must appreciate the context. Earlier, Marie and Orso are resting in a gently rocking boat that they have stolen—a passage whose stillness underscores their usual high-octane activity, as when they fly through a landscape on a motorbike. Over a side of the boat, Marie’s hand strokes the water. She is dreaming; the shot is lyrical. But it’s disturbed by an echo that we bring to it; for this shot recalls an earlier insert, where the dreamer, instead of Marie, is Orso, who is imagining himself playing with a gun. Thus Pradal’s shot of Marie’s hand in the water, with its suggestion also of the watery grave from the film’s opening, shifts the film to her viewpoint, even to her unconscious. When she dies, then, the film in effect is lost to itself, having lost Marie, its dreaming center. This becomes an enormous expression of Orso’s sense of loss; and the film’s dip into more discernible strands of narrative suggests Orso’s own reduced and dulled world now that Marie, his love and his muse, has been taken from him. It is, after all, Marie who embodies the poetic source of this rhapsodic film; her death, for us no less than for Orso, then, denotes the end of rhapsody. Only afterwards, as we begin to rediscover our heartbeat, do we realize that her respite in the boat found Marie dreaming—imaging—her own death.

One pistol or another is the film’s central image; it is the motif that threads the tragedy. The pistol that Marie steals from the American soldier with whom she has bedded represents the power that Orso desires and imputes to these foreigners at the base, even though, to us, he is as engagingly fresh as the Americans are coarse, predictable and stale. (Pradal takes pains to present the Americans fairly—I would say, more than fairly. For instance, when one of them overtakes Orso, who has stolen his wallet, the American spares Orso the worst possible beating. Basically, he just retrieves the wallet.) It is Orso’s overwhelming failure not to have understood that Marie is what matters to him; she provides the relationship that defines his strength of humanity—not a gun, which, tied to a past of hurt, he feels he can use to redress the sense he has of having always been shut out from power, a voice, a life. It is Marie who offers to give him all of this. Hers is the love that can shore him up. Nevertheless, more or less by stubborn reflex now, Orso still wants the gun. Clearly, the Americans in the film—as they do, geopolitically, in the West—represent the gun’s custodians. As such, they project the completion of Orso’s fatalism and defeatism. The boy gets his toy, and he is left with the consequences. In addition to losing his beloved, he ends up (accidentally?) shooting to death the younger boy, unparented like himself, to whom he had given all his money for the purchase of a weapon. The symbolism, transparent, pierces; this other boy is Orso himself—the child rattling the cage of Orso’s brutal adolescence.

Marie Baie des Anges is an amazing celebration of youth. It is also youth’s valedictory.

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