Established directors with a distinctive style can attract backlash. For example, I like the films of Wes Anderson, but I gather that many do not, and that’s fine and understandable. It may be a reaction to many things, but I suspect primarily it’s the stylisation, the candy box set and production design, and the ever-so-slightly self-consciously stilted line deliveries of the actors. Lacking the widespread acclaim of Anderson, but making films every bit as stylised, is Eugène Green, who also originally hails from the States (New York, to be precise) but lives and works in France. In La Sapienza (translated as “Sapience”, an archaic word for wisdom, here applied specifically to the work of 17th century Italian architect Francesco Borromini), Green uses architecture as, ahem, a structuring conceit for a story of four people.
Going back to the comparison I started out with, it’s not that I think Green and Anderson are comparable in their work, just that this is the first film I’ve seen by Green and I think for those who are unfamiliar with his work (as I imagine most are), you might start with the acting. The enunciation of the actors — particularly Fabrizio Rongione in the lead role of architect Alexandre — is declamatory, and generally delivered while facing directly into the camera. Facial tics and body language are kept to a minimum, which lends a deadpan aspect to much of what Alexandre says (and incidentally makes the film pretty comedic at times, in ways I think are probably intended). His wife Aliénor (played by Christelle Prot, a frequent collaborator with Green) has a softer, more symapthetic mien, though even with her every delivered line of the script is given its space. Soon enough, the respective stories of these two split off from one another, as, after travelling from Paris to Italy, they bump into two young people. Alexandre accompanies architecture student Goffredo (Ludovico Succio) around Italy, as Aliénor stays to look after Goffredo’s ailing sister Lavinia (Arianna Nastro).
Every bit as stylised as the acting is the mise en scène. Green prefers very carefully-balanced and symmetrical frontal stagings, usually of two actors side-by-side, or in rigid shot-reverse shot constructions of dialogue scenes. Interspersed are views of buildings, with the camera often panning up towards the sky along a building’s façade as the characters discuss Borromini and his ideas of space and light. However, unlike say a Godard film, the dialogue is not just philosophical treatises delivered stiltedly, though the allusions to classical architects and digressions to appraise various buildings make it all unashamedly high-cultural in its effect. No, this is a film primarily about two characters in their middle-age who find themselves reassessing how they want to live and work, and who are inspired by the younger generation they meet.
If it all seems arid, elitist and rather precious, then at a certain level, it is. Once you allow that, it’s really all rather delightful, warm and funny and witty and even human, despite all appearances. The director pushes the artifice in all its senses, but its building blocks remain the four people.
Director/Writer Eugène Green; Cinematographer Raphaël O’Byrne; Starring Fabrizio Rongione, Christelle Prot [as “Christelle Prot Landman”], Ludovico Succio, Arianna Nastro; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Wednesday 15 October 2014.