The Melancholy Poetry of a Seaside Town; Julie Lopes-Curval’s “Bord De Mer”
by Erica Abeel
The presiding spirits in “Bord De Mer” (Seaside), the radiant film by newcomer Julie Lopes-Curval which First Run Features opens Wednesday at New York’s Film Forum, are Edward Hopper and Anton Chekhov — with the ghost of Nino Rota cruising through. An ensemble work set in a once-fashionable seaside resort in Normandy, “Seaside” evokes Hopper in its images of cabanas lined up in the unforgiving light, faintly forlorn even at the height of summer, and in off-season the shape of desolation. While the characters who feel trapped in their lives and long to escape — “we’re all waiting for something” says one — at times seem a Gallic version of Chekov’s “Three Sisters,” yearning to leave for Moscow. Yet even with its homages to past masters, this first feature by the 28-year-old Lopes-Curval is a wholly original work, suffused with a melancholy poetry so magical you ask only to watch it again.
The opening titles presage the flavor of what’s to come, gliding horizontally across the screen at different depths in the dark ground, suggesting tentativeness and missed connections. Our first view of the faded insular resort are fuzzy long shots accompanied by snatches of festive parade-ground music in the style of Rota, but muffled and faint. The effect of the present mutating into a lost world even as you watch it raises goose flesh from the start. Observed over the course of four seasons (OK, Rohmer’s here, too), the characters are introduced unhurriedly in anti-dramatic style, gradually forming a micro-society of young and less young, the prosperous summer folk and the hardscrabble townies. Like the pebbles on the resort’s rocky beach (the English title was originally “Pebbles”), these people are transformed by rubbing up against each other.
Marie (Helen Fillieres) is the prettiest girl in town, the one you’ve surely glimpsed behind a zinc counter if you’ve lingered in provincial France. Oozing discontent, she works on the production line of the local pebble sorting factory, and beds down with her unambitious boyfriend Paul (Jonathan Zaccai), a lifeguard in summer and grocery clerk in winter. Marie is almost a throwback to a 19th-century fictional heroine, pining for a romance that will spring her from her constricted life. Paul’s mother Rose, poignantly portrayed by Bulle Ogier, is addicted to gambling her retirement money at the local casino’s slot machines. Rose’s penury — in winter she lives without heat — points up the good fortune of her girlhood friend Odette (Liliane Rovere), a widow who married the factory boss and brags of trips abroad. In an indelible scene, Rose quashes her pride, slips on a rarely-worn pink suit, and marches over to Odette’s to ask for financial help — but after a single tap on the window, flees.
Odette’s moody son Albert (Patrick Lizana) is uninspired by his job as a manager at the family-owned factory that has recently been swallowed by a corporation. At loose ends after getting sacked, and out of synch with his wife, he starts a relationship with the reluctant Marie. There’s also Anne (Ludmila Mikael), one of the summer people, and her son, a Parisian fashion photographer with a rather flaky girlfriend. The least focused of the characters, Anne suffers a weeping fit that’s underexplained (is it class guilt over her cushy life compared to the struggling locals?) “Things are so exactly the way I don’t want them to be,” says Marie — and the question of whether she’ll cheat the destiny assigned her is what powers the narrative.
Deservedly, “Seaside” won the Camera d’Or at Cannes 2002. The film is on one level a gallery of heart-stopping photographs, each a visual haiku; in fact, Lopes-Curval remarks in the press notes that she has often thought of this film as “a succession of portraits.” Odd to say of a movie, but the eye wants the film to stop, in order to contemplate arresting shots. The most banal scenes are suffused with an otherworldly quiet and loneliness; clusters of people on the beach, including an old man in his beach chair wearing shoes and socks, speak more of isolation than community. Street signs of directional arrows or barring entry assume cryptic meanings. In the blanched light color becomes a gaping wound. After hearing her co-workers on the assembly line speak gratefully of the champagne and flowers they can hope to receive at retirement, Marie just about loses it and totters homeward in the blinding noon. No words are needed — her brilliant carmine stockings seem to shout the horror of the fate that’s closing in on her. A couple runs through dune grass down to the sea, gulls wheeling above, the camera swooning out of focus, as if intoxicated with the scene’s beauty — then cut to shots of the pebble-sorting factory towering bleakly along the shoreline.
The theme of escape echoes through figures repeatedly drifting off the frame of the screen. In the final cycle back to summer, the photographer’s greatly pregnant girlfriend returns to town in a red dress and pink sun hat and perches on the lifeguard stand. But this resplendent image is shadowed by a local invasion of sharks and the sight of a fin cutting the sea. “I’m afraid even without the sharks,” the woman says, summing up the indefinable malaise that pervades the film.
“I am often frightened by rapidity,” Lopes-Curval says in the press notes. “My way of dealing with it is to seek something a little…more contemplative.” What she has hit on is not arty slowness, I’m-making-an-important-statement slowness (like those interminable tracking shots from behind in Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant”) — “Seaside” unfolds with a kind of stunned languor full of gaps and silences, perfectly at one with characters frozen in sameness or groping for new selves.
Yet in tracing these lives, the director makes liberal use of elision and compression, which are elegant forms of speed. She seems to have effortlessly acquired that Gallic instinct for what to leave out. The omission of explanatory links could have easily unsettled the film’s delicate equilibrium, toppling it into “the void,” to use her term. Example: we see Rose playing the slot machines; then cut to a semi visible scene on the night beach of a figure hurtling toward the sea, another dark figure stumbling after her. Only a bit later we learn that Rose has gambled her house away and planned to drown herself. The connections are made, the structure holds.
But the most gorgeous ellipse involves the fate of Marie. We learn what becomes of her — up to a point — but all the crucial details we crave in our sentimental hearts are tantalizingly withheld.
Uncommonly conscious of her artistic strategies, Lopes-Curval has stated that the more precise you are, the more the work becomes general and universal. Maybe that partially explains why this “small” film about unexceptional lives in a provincial French resort has such breadth and packs such emotional power. The struggles of these insular folk give form to the longing of malcontents everywhere to light out for “Moscow,” wherever that might be.