Italian director Pietro Marcello (Martin Eden) shifts his focus to France in Scarlet (L’Envol), a period drama in Directors’ Fortnight. Set in the rural north after the First World War, it’s a decade-spanning story of family, small town politics and — ultimately — romance.
When Raphaël (Raphaël Thiéry) returns from war, his wife has died, leaving their baby daughter, Juliette, in the care of farmer Adeline (Noémie Lvovsky). Adeline gives Raphaël lodgings and helps him gain work as a carpenter. Juliette grows up close to her father, but this unconventional family is ostracized by many in the community, sealing Juliette’s fate as something of a loner. But she’s also a happy dreamer. The tone shifts into fairytale territory when a local woman (Yolande Moreau) encounters Juliette in the woods and tells her fortune, predicting that “scarlet sails” will one day take her away from the village.
A loose adaptation of Scarlet Sails, a novel by Soviet author Alexander Grin, Scarlet is a film of many parts. They may not always fit together perfectly, but each one is admirable and enjoyable in its own way.
Marcello sets the scene using real archive images of Armistice Day in the Bay of the Somme. The casting of Raphaël Thiéry is key to the emotional heft of the early scenes, in which a war-torn father discovers terrible truths about his late wife’s death. The camera makes much of his distinctive stocky features and earthy appearance, focusing on his big, tough hands that carve delicate works of art, from children’s toys to a ship’s figurehead. This reflects his tender side, whether he’s caring for his daughter or remembering his beloved wife.
Once Juliette begins her path to true love, she’s played by magnetic newcomer Juliette Jouan. The film presents her as an unconventional pastoral princess, singing freely and bathing in the local lake like a siren. But there’s no dark side to this mermaid, and her sunny outlook is echoed by the film’s ultimately optimistic tone. The music at this point is surely purposefully over the top, almost tipping into satire. But it’s easy to submit to the fairytale, which also involves French star Louis Garrel.
The most charming and humorous part of the film is what director Marcello calls the “Matriarchal community of outcasts”. Lvovsky is tremendous as their leader, Adeline: blunt, witty, principled, caring and generally dismissive of men outside of the small community they’ve formed with the blacksmith’s family. Adeline also tells fortunes and schools the young girls in the powers of prediction, leading locals to brand them witches. Comedienne Moreau is equally funny and fascinating — it’s a shame we don’t see much interaction between these two characters.
Scarlet’s tonal shifts may not win over everyone, but if you roll with the changes, it’s a decorative and entertaining watch that recalls everything from Jean de Florette to The Princess Bride.