I can’t say for sure if this is appropriate as a “sneak preview” considering that Jean-Paul Civeyrac’s Through the Forest, with its scant but weighty 65 minutes, will unlikely receive any sort of proper theatrical release, but I felt the film was worth a first mention here as it was somewhat of a highlight at this year’s NYFF. Especially coming after a fresh heaping pile of bombast both politically retarded (Manderlay) and ideologically suspect (Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, and more on that piece of excrement later when my stomach can muster the strength), Civeyrac’s film seemed an expert modulation in atmosphere and ambiguity. Okay, so I admit it…nothing new here. And I haven’t seen anything else by this slight-framed, curly-haired Frenchman, so I cannot say for sure whether it is continuing a career trajectory or proves a divergence for him.
But based on an unblemished viewing, for which I had little to no expectations and went in only because it was chosen by the selection committee as one of the 25 movies to see this month at Lincoln Center, I was thoroughly impressed: minimal but engaging narrative, expert, tricky camerawork, a lovely central performance by a dewy-eyed ingenue (Camille Berthomier), and a wonderful wrenching earnestness. With its swoony dreamlike imagery and themes of doubling, Through the Forest takes its stylistic and thematic cues from countless films and well-trod territory, from Vertigo to Les Biches to Three Women but finds its own ghostly charms, mostly thanks to a sincerely modest running time, which affords the entire narrative the structure of an aria. Simply, a young woman mourns the motorcycle death of her boyfriend, imagines she still communicates with him, even trying to go through a medium for corroboration. Yet the second half of the film takes an even gloomier turn, when we are no longer sure if we are in the land of the dead or the living, all of which is detailed in burnished reds, deep shadows, and swoony classical music.
So, if it’s not breaking any ground, there’s still a lot to be excited about here. The word hypnotic is thrown around a lot, and it may seem a critical cop-out to use it to describe a film that so desperately courts “hypnosis” (both literally in the narrative and by design), but Civeyrac attains just that. If it seems rather clunky as spiritual inquiry and perhaps too fashionably youthful to truly function as a consideration of the afterlife, the film nevertheless manages to completely envelop you in a nicely evocative threshold between life and death. Its pull is nearly impossible to completely resist.