Close-Up is a column that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Léa Fehner’s Les ogres (2015) is playing January 17 – February 15, 2017 in most countries around the world.
In my early twenties, I made the frankly bad decision of taking a night-class in writing a novel. That a class might not be required if one were someone who ought to be writing novels had not yet occurred to me; “writing school,” Fran Liebowitz has often said, “to me is as if there’s a ‘tall school.’” (Five foot two in my stockinged feet, it became clear I was not to be the next Nabokov.) At the class, another attendee told me in a debate about film that I did not care for Wes Anderson as, based on what he could see, I “did not have a soul.” This was not, in my estimation, unfair. Spiritually speaking, I have no idea if it’s accurate. To that man, however, I’d like to say this: would a person with no soul have, albeit unexpectedly, loved Les ogres—a film that follows the hardscrabble lives of a traveling cabaret troupe? Would a person with no soul have—God help me—cried at its ending?
The introduction of Les ogres had me fearing an excess of whimsy. No matter: by minute eight, all of its whimsy and sweet style is canned when a dancer is dropped on the stage and horrifically injured. Her screams are the real thing. The play that the troupe is performing is Chekhov’s The Bear, about a widow and a debt collector who fight and then marry; this means that nightly, they are enacting the same broad grotesqueries onstage as off. The moment we see that one of the actors is nine months pregnant, we instinctively know—as is the case in nearly all cases in fiction when someone is visibly pregnant—that the baby is Chevhok’s baby, laid before us to signal some later explosion It will not surprise you to hear the actress gives birth near the end of the film—but it surprised me to find myself moved. There is still wonder in the quotidian, when mystery and magic are tempered by cow-shit and vomit and basic, unhappy betrayal. I’m not soulful enough to want too much perfection (one hears often near New Years’, per the business of making and keeping one’s tough resolutions: “perfect is the enemy of good”), but I am human enough to want tenderness. In Les ogres, there is rough and there is smooth and there is a gentle kind of sentiment, but neither good nor evil especially triumphs.
As the troupe tours and performs, there are estrangements and heartaches, and there are affairs: somebody has lost a young son to leukemia, and is on antidepressants. The stakes are, in other words, real. They’re significant. The two big stories between their performances are the aforementioned birth and the return of a dancer with whom the ringmaster-director has previously had an affair. Both he and she have aged, and neither is as vital or as satisfied as they once were. It’s a sad thing, an aging showgirl—sadder still, a bald philanderer nobody wants to fuck. When Francois, the philanderer, finds out that his meek and miserable wife has finally slept with a stranger in kind, he parades through the camp with a megaphone, screaming “MY WIFE WAS FINALLY LAID!” The famous clown Grimaldi had a life so infamously miserable that his slogan was “I am grim all day, but I make you laugh at night.” In places, Les ogres is grim. In the very twilight of its 142-minute theatrical run, it gets sweeter. What it asks is whether our families are literal or figurative. It does not begin to suggest which means more. Our figurative families are sometimes uneasy ones, thrown into being by circumstance; our real families are often conflicted.
An ogre is a giant that eats men. It’s also a word that means “tyrant.” Saying that this troupe’s odd assemblage is made up of ogres is true in both senses—their lifestyle, its largeness, devours all comers. Their egos are vicious. I cannot think of “sound and fury, signifying” etcetera as anything other than tedious or, worse, bad taste when you’re reviewing a film about theatre, but how else to label their arguments? Sound is layered the way that sound is really layered when three, four, five, six people argue; sharp casting adds realism. We might have struggled with Mona, the young pregnant woman, deciding to stay with her drunk, depressed lover if not for the fact that she’s played by Adèle Haenel: a two-time César-winner at only twenty-seven, and young-woman wise in the manner of Lea Seydoux. She’s luminous, tough, loyal, and—like most of us at or near her age—still a half-sucker for troubled, much older men. She doesn’t need anybody; but when the hurly-burly’s done, if it’s ever done, life is easier with even this odd, ramshackle support system.
“I grew up on the road in the 1990s,” Léa Fehner, the film’s director, has said, “along with my parents, who decided to try their luck with the fairground, and with the theater of Molière…it’s a work of fiction, but it’s a fiction inspired by the men and women of my childhood, who have an excessive taste for life and who have tried to live their collective dream. It is a mix of harsh and violent reality, and burlesque.” One of the few English-language reviews of Les ogres, by Variety, calls it a film about people whose way of life “often takes the form of an arrested childhood, preserved via immersion in alcohol.” This is true: it also, albeit utterly coincidentally, sounds a little like a broadsheet line about millennials. Living as I do in a city in which you can go to a bar that’s a ball pit or eat at a “cereal café,” I can’t say arrested development troubles me. When one actor is chastised for crying too hard, and complains that “it’s either too much or too little,” it’s hard not to think of the tightrope we walk before growing up into our real, adult selves. Les ogres, for all of its being too long and too much, is exactly enough; to make cinema ‘real’ is a circus trick done so well nobody quite sees the work, or the strain.