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Last night the AFI Fest afforded the North American premiere of experimental film and video artist Philippe Grandrieux’s third feature, Un lac, the first of any of his works to be shown in the region. I’m now itching to see the others (La vie nouvelle, Sombre) because Un lac is simply breath-taking.

Grandrieux works equally with light, sound and objects (actors included) as plastic elements to create “pure” film, and as such writing about it is a bit like Robert Graves’ frustration at being asked to describe his own poetry – the form in which it exists has been labored over to such specific perfection that reduction in another form is a disservice. But I shall do the disservice anyway, providing poor and sketchy impressions.

The film is set in a remote snow-covered pine forest on the shores of a mountain lake. The bare-bones bergfilm story is almost as old as the mountains themselves, incestuous jealousy amongst a wood-chopping family and the young man who joins them. The plot is not really the point, although part of the film’s project is to create the emotion tied up in the story through all means at the filmmaker’s disposal. Accompanied by a marvelously textured soundtrack almost devoid of dialogue but filled instead with the sounds of nature – wind whispers and roars, trees creak and fall, rain falls crisply onto deep snow – and the the breathing of the actors, heavy to almost silent, the study of images is just gorgeous.

From heart-stopping shots of the mist-shrouded landscape, to remarkable, obscure interiors, intense close-up studies, or simply abstracted shapes, it’s pure sculpting in light and shade. Surprisingly effective, Grandrieux has a masterful way with out-of-focus, reducing exteriors to blobby abstracts and fields of light and darkness (outside, it’s almost a color film in black and white) while the interiors a fuzzed with a soft fire-lit blur. It’s a splendid technique, but I hope to God it doesn’t catch on, because few will match Grandrieux’s near-faultless image judgment nor his acute sense of when to pull back to sharpness.

Ever since seeing Ivan’s Childhood at a tender age, and growing up near one, I have been a sucker for pine forests in movies, but Grandrieux leaves Tarkovsky in the dust with his images of the vertical ranks of trunks and the snow-laden, tendrilous crazy-lace branches; the forest study reaches its apogee when the sister and the newcomer exchange their first look of mutual understanding and their surroundings are transformed into a glorious, enchanted fairy forest. Operating the camera himself, Grandrieux starts off in a style I normally abhor, all jittery and waving about, and there remains a little too much of it for my taste, though it does calm down after a while. The method is quickly given a partial justification, however, so unexpectedly fitting as to be almost a joke, and as brother and sister dash through the forest, it achieves a thrillingly Parajanovian euphoria.

The film falls down in one place only, when a piano accompaniment appears suddenly on the soundtrack to match the sister’s sudden burst into song. This moment almost achieves transcendence (given the setting, the ghost of Caspar David Friedrich hovers close at hand, and we are finally treated here to a wonderfully beautiful, uncanny, rendition of The Monk by the Sea) but the piano is almost fatally intrusive. An understandable decision, perhaps, since the golden voice of an angel would be required rather than that of the actress, adequate but amateur, but the beauty of the Schumann lied carries the day (the other jarring note is an armpit-or-vagina shot, but maybe that’s just me).

The program synopsis and quite possibly the above suggest a movie inductive to dozing. Perhaps, but I was spellbound – it is also a glorious, unique achievement, astonishingly beautiful, thrillingly intimate and mesmerizingly sublime.

Rating: 8.97/10

Watch the trailer here.