This series, of which this is the second instalment, is inspired by the Movie Lottery blog, whose author is picking DVD titles from a hat in order to decide which films to watch. As ever, you’ll notice my dust-gathering DVD collection includes a lot more European arthouse films. I’ve selected another one from the hat to watch and present my review below.
There’s a lot of empty space in this debut feature from the director Xavier Beauvois, who is most well-known for the contemplative monastic drama Des hommes et des dieux (Of Gods and Men, 2010). The contemplation in this early work is altogether less divinely-inspired, unless it’s by the deities of ancient Greece, who seem to preside over this drama of a family falling apart under the strains of the father’s alcoholism. The empty space is the setting of the title, in the grey industrial North of France, around Calais where the director himself grew up. It seems to suffuse every scene, not least because so many unfold in extreme long shot, with the actors as small presences against the terrain.
Nord is essentially a two-hander between father (Bernard Verley) and son, played by the director as a directionless 18-year-old (though Beauvois was about five years older when he made the film). Bulle Ogier is one of the great character actors of French cinema, though she is a curiously distant presence here, seen feeding her disabled daughter or watching TV with the family, her character only really making an impact thanks to one brief yet disturbing scene.
The distance may of course be related to the reticence of the camera to get too close to these characters’ faces, meaning their emotions are mostly conveyed through body language and gesture, though there’s no shortage of this. Quiet stretches of silence — such as the family in their living room, arrayed across the screen and looking past the camera at an unseen television set — are increasingly punctuated by distemperate outburts, as the father is sucked into addiction. He is an implacable presence, grimly focused with a hard unforgiving face. His work at a local chemist’s, from whom we see him surreptitiously pocket some pure alcohol at the film’s start, appears precarious as his absences are increasingly problematic for his manager to cover. Meanwhile, the resulting strain on the family’s home life seems to be affecting the son’s schoolwork, for which he shows scant interest. However, as the film progresses, it more and more seems as if he is the one who is best placed to pull through the other side of the family crisis.
The film progresses with long periods of quietness, the characters adrift, and the slow bubbling up of deeper emotions is carefully controlled in an impressive manner by Beauvois as a young first-time director. The staging of the family scenes at home, for example, perceptibly shifts after the father goes into rehab, with the sombre TV-watching zombies of earlier replaced by a warmly-lit family meal. There’s even a rare close-up when son goes to meet father, and he seems to soften a little. It’s in these little moments that the film is at its best for me, and makes it a worthwhile watch if you can track it down.
Director/Writer Xavier Beauvois; Cinematographer Fabio Conversi; Starring Xavier Beauvois, Bernard Verley, Bulle Ogier; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 5 May 2013.