Les Naufragées du Fol Espoir (The Castaways of the Fol Espoir), (2014)

by | Jul 10, 2014 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews

Les Naufragées du Fol Espoir (The Castaways of the Fol Espoir), (2014)

Cast: Members of Theatre du Soleil
Director: Ariane Mnouchkine
Screenplay by: Helene Cixous
Based on a posthumous Jules Verne novel
Studio: CNC/ Bel Air Classiques BAC100 (3 DVDs) [6/24/14] (Distr. by Naxos)
Video: 16:9 color, no region coding
Audio: French Dolby 5.1 & 2.0
Subtitles: English, French, German, Spanish
Extras: Many supplements of the shooting and interviews with the actors, on both Discs 1 & 2 and entire Disc 3. 
Length: 450 minutes
Rating: ****

Talk about an epic production! One writer compares Mnouchkine to a Wagnerian conductor, knowing just where she is going, from the first moment to the last. Well, I’m not a Wagner fan and this two-DVD effort left me exhausted, but I have to admit it is certainly an interesting take on the whole novel/political/ theatrical/cinema thing and a most original one at that.  Mnouchkine has a strong political message behind her on stage craziness, asking if democratic collectivity is compatible with a strong artistic vision.

The Theatre du Soleil evidently puts on such wild evenings of theater somewhere in Paris, and the actors are involved in much more than just their roles on the stage. They help build sets and equipment, contribute to costumes and script, and so on. But his may be the first time that a film has resulted from one of their performances. I may be off base on that, because all the notes on the album as well as the poster provided are all in French and I didn’t feel like struggling to figure it out. There is also one big page of “souscripteurs” which is printed so tiny it is unreadable in any language.

Finding a posthumous novel by the great Jules Verne was the starting point for this project.  It envisions a sort of cabaret-restaurant known as Le Fol Espoir. Upstairs from the restaurant, the space has been transformed into a very amateur theatrical stage for the making of an early 20th-century silent film based on the Jules Verne story. Some of the staff from the restaurant are actors in the film, and others are selected—such as the two girls doing a street show out the window which the director sees. The film is being shot by a cranked film camera which is basically a big wooden box. (The constant exhortations of “turn the handle;” “I’m turning the handle” got most tiresome.) The film tells the story of a ship and its variety of passengers bound for Australia and a new life—from a famous opera sing down to some petty criminals in the hold, and is basically a political fable for the masses, to educate them about the possibility of a democratic socialist brotherhood.

There is some slapstick in the style of the silents, love stories and some movements of great suspense and adventure. But there are also too-long sequences of some of the actors stating their political agendas to the camera or debating them. This is doubly difficult because the soundtrack is mostly silent since this is a sound movie aping the silent movie approach, though in quite a different way from Judex which I just reviewed. Only the subtitles in French and English often communicate what is being said. There is a musical accompaniment—often so low volume it sounds like it is in another room.  It consists of somewhat appropriate free domain Romantic-period classical music by Mahler, Bruckner, Shostakovich, Wagner, Brahms, Khachaturian, Respighi, Tchaikovsky, Faure, Debussy and others. I think the filmmaker’s idea is that the music puts the actors in the proper mood, as they did with some of the silents. One of the actors says in the extras that most of the time nobody really knows what they are doing in a production.

There are the sounds of the various members of Theatre du Soleil rushing around setting up the meagre props and sets and occasionally conversations between the director Jean and his wife, who is usually the camerawoman. The sets are extremely slap-dash—for example the ship being only the bow, and the various members busily throwing around the fake snow for the snow scenes. One eventually gets used to the amateurish approach on everything—after all, it’s just a theatrical presentation of the making of a silent film. There is also another (and confusing) level to the story: that of a modern woman who has discovered materials related to the 1914 film in her attic, and her children, one of whom is sick with some sort of illness. At one point they get involved in what is happening onstage. The shipwreck occurs due to some wealthy rightist who has paid the captain extra to take the ship thru the dangerous Straits of Magellan rather than thru the Panama Canal.

Behind the story and the arguments about setting up a democratic socialist colony in Patagonia (where the shipwreck occurs), there is the actual time the filming is supposed to be taking place, which is starting on the day the Archduke Franz Ferdinands was assassinated in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, which started WW I.  General conscription begins August 1 and things end with the assassination of the French Socialist leader Jean Jaures the day before—one of the main historical figures of the French Left. The actors take a vote when they hear the bad news and decide to film the shipwreck closing portion at breakneck speed before the war breaks out, but things do sort of fall into even more chaos towards the end. I didn’t know they made films this long in 1914. I was glad to see the third DVD was more extras and not a continuation of the film…

—John Sunier

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