This is a hybrid drama presented as a francophone film in My French Film Festival. It is also available on UK streamers via the BFI for a few more days (i.e. BFI Player subscription, Amazon Prime and Apple) and possibly on Google and Apple for longer. Adapted by Joanne Giger from a novel by Roland Buti, this is the second feature by the Swiss director Delphine Lehericey, now living in Belgium. The film is an official Belgian-Swiss co-production. It has quite a starry cast and has won a positive critical response at festivals and subsequently gained distribution in a number of territories. I am not totally convinced by the film but it is certainly worth catching.
I’m calling it a hybrid simply because all the reviews and most of the promotional material I’ve seen categorise the film as a ‘coming-of-age’ story. While that is certainly an important element in the film and the narrative is focused on 13 year-old Gus, that isn’t a complete description. And apart from anything else ‘coming of age’ is a very loose concept related to individuals and occurring at very different ages. Sometimes it is sexual maturity, sometimes it is about adult responsibility, sometimes it is simply about the ending of childhood. Just as important in this case is a natural phenomenon and a couple of social issues which loom large in the lives of a family in 1976 on a farm somewhere in rural Europe. Anyone over the age of 50 will now remember 1976 as the time of the great heat wave and drought. It was a momentous year in my life in the UK but fortunately I wasn’t in a rural area and I remember the heat rather than the drought – but farming communities in Central Europe must have suffered. This film was actually shot in Macedonia. I’m not sure why (apart from wider European funding) but it works well as a landscape for drought.
The family is headed by Nicole (Laetitia Casta) and Jean (Thibaut Evrard). Jean’s father Annibal (Patrick Descamps) is still alive and the children are Gus (Luc Bruchez) and Léa (Lisa Harder). There is also Rudi (Fred Hotier), a young man with some form of learning difficulty. I wasn’t sure of his status but one review I read stated he is a cousin of Gus and therefore perhaps the nephew of Nicole. At 13 Gus is still quite small as a late developer, but his hormones are starting to kick in and early on we see him stealing a magazine of nudes to add to his usual reading of comic books. He will have other experiences that are more tactile and the six weeks of summer holiday drought and heat are quite eventful. One thing is clear and that is that he is close to his mother. Luc Bruchez was appearing in his first film and the fact that he is on screen for most senes adds to his excellent début. His haircut and small stature reminded me of the Small Faces, the UK band from the mid 1960s.
1976 is an important period of feminist consciousness (see films like Agnes Varda’s One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (France 1977) and Catherine Corsini’s Summertime (France 2015)). In this film Nicole meets the divorced Cécile and a relationship begins. Cécile’s arrival on the scene has an impact on most of the other family members – and many others in the area. The farm needs money and Nicole decides to work part-time at the Post Office with Cécile. Daughter Léa also responds to Cécile’s arrival but I think her story is underplayed in the film (I couldn’t find an image from the film that includes Léa).
The males in the family do most of the actual farming and it is very difficult with crops and animals dying in the heat and drought. This is a double issue. Jean has invested in some intensively-raised poultry, not a good idea for sustainable farming, even back in the 1970s. The maize crop is ruined and the dairy cows fed on expensive stored feed are the only part of the farm generating an income. In some ways scenes reminded me of foot and mouth disease in the UK and the thousands of cattle and sheep that had to be burned. If you are upset by animals dying this probably isn’t the film for you. The other factor is the long-term economic decline of the family farm. Jean doesn’t want to work for anyone else but he hasn’t got the resources to keep the farm going. Rudi is a willing worker but Gus is reluctant and works only out of duty and family pressure. Jean is a hard worker but it isn’t enough.
The cast are all very good and the cinematography by the very experienced Christophe Beaucarne is excellent. Léa is part of the school orchestra and some of the discussions about music are interesting (the Ramones aren’t allowed onto the radio for instance, so UK style punk won’t be having much of an impact). I read one review that suggested that the director consciously avoids conventional storytelling. That’s an interesting point. I felt that some characters who seemed important were not really explored and although there is a narrative climax when the rains finally come, I didn’t feel that there was any kind of conclusive resolution. I suspect that what we are meant to take from the final image is simply that after the summer of 1976 the family will never be quite the same again.