Skies of Lebanon (Sous le ciel d’Alice, France 2020)

Joseph and Alice meet and fall in love

This unusual but rather wonderful film was one of several titles from My French Film Festival that have also been streaming on MUBI in the UK. It’s about to disappear from MUBI but is available from other streamers such as Amazon, Apple, YouTube etc. It is a début feature film by Chloé Mazlo after several short features, co-written by the director and Yacine Badday. Chloé Mazlo comes from a background of graphic arts leading to work in animation. She grew up in France with memories of her Lebanese family who left their country during the civil war of the 1970s and the film is her very personal way of trying to represent what happened within her family during the war.

Alice’s parents are represented by puppets . . .

The narrative begins with Alice, a young woman bored and stifled by what she sees as the conformity of francophone Switzerland, who arrives in Beirut in the 1950s as a nanny. Quickly she falls in love with Joseph a research scientist she meets in a café. He has dreams of leading a Lebanese attempt to enter the ‘space race’ by building a rocket. Alice marries into his Arab Christian family and all is well until the beginning of the civil war in 1975. The film narrative is not about the war as such, but about what it does to the family and how they understand it and try to deal with it. The story is told in a long flashback as Alice makes the journey from Beirut to Cyprus in 1977, seemingly to return to Switzerland.

Joseph works on his rocket

The English title of the film is slightly misleading. The French title tells us directly that we are going to experience a story as Alice tells it and how she felt about it. I should point out that there has been an odd occurrence in the last few months since the appearance of this film on UK streamers has coincided with the UK cinema release of Memory Box (Lebanon-France-Canada 2021) by the Lebanese filmmakers Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige. The parallels are extraordinary. Both films are about memories of the civil war in Beirut, both narrated from ‘exile’ about family life during the troubles and both using drawings, photographs and other artefacts to tell the story. There is also a further connection in that Hadjithomas and Joreige, well-known Lebanese filmmakers, made a documentary about the Lebanese rocket project, The Lebanese Rocket Society in 2012. I’ve just noted that this is actually available on MUBI. I’m not suggesting that one film borrows from the other. Sous le ciel d’Alice was released first but it was made completely outside Lebanon, shot in a French studio with exteriors in Cyprus. Memory Box was made in Canada and Lebanon.

The war on the streets is represented here by the ‘Cedar of Lebanon’ threatened by a skeleton in military uniform

Chloé Mazlo uses a very wide range of animation and graphic ideas to present her story, raging from puppet stop motion animation for Alice’s decision to leave Switzerland to the use of old photographs as backdrops in 1950s Beirut and various costumes and masks to represent significant figures in Lebanon. The first third of the film I found simply glorious in its creativity and warmth. As the narrative progresses the use of these devices reduces in relation to the realist live action scenes (although these still have a conscious use of a colour palette dominated by pastel colours). Mazlo describes this transition like this:

. . . the first movement of the film is based on a colourful and fanciful staging, almost pictorial, more visually striking. These extravagances gradually diminish over the course of the film, even if they remain present, with the rocket project for example. Gradually, we get closer and closer to the tragedy of Lebanon: Alice and Joseph can no longer speak to each other. They try, but they can’t, and they suffer from the lack of levity and innocence of their past. (from a Google translation of the original French)

The film was photographed by the vastly experienced and talented Hélène Louvart, shooting on Super 16mm film. I was reminded of her work on Happy as Lazzaro (Italy 2018) directed by Alice Rohrwacher. Rohrwacher’s actor sister Alba featured in the Italian film and plays Alice in Sous le ciel d’Alice. She is an excellent actor and a familiar figure in contemporary cinema, well cast here. Joseph is played by Wajdi Mouawad, primarily a writer for the theatre, whose books and plays were part of Chloé Mazlo’s education as an artist. Mouawad was born in Lebanon but his family migrated first to France and then to Canada. One of his plays was adapted by Denis Villeneuve for the film Incendies (Canada 2010). The rest of the cast for Sous le ciel d’Alice are all Lebanese.

The family watch the explosions across the city

Alice introduces the story in flashback as she makes the journey to Cyprus

I enjoyed the first part of the film very much and then felt a little deflated when I realised that the amount of animation and graphics was being reduced. I understand Mazlo’s decision as explained in the quote above and perhaps as I watched the Alice’s family life begin to suffer I was being reminded of Memory Box and the way the same period was presented on screen in that film. It isn’t a fair representation as Memory Box has a young protagonist looking outwards whereas Alice is in her forties when civil war breaks out and more focused on her family. Sous le ciel d’Alice requires both Alice and Joseph to age 20+ years. I don’t think this is a problem and both actors carry it off. Overall it is a well thought out script and a fine début film. Alice develops as an artist in the film and her sketches become another form of graphic presentation in the story. The film’s ending is suitably ‘open’, I think. I recommend the film highly. At the moment I don’t think that there are plans to bring it to UK cinemas but it should work fine on screeners as well.

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