A sprawling immersion into the chaotic lives of theater folk, Ogres (Les ogres) is the crowd-pleasingly big-hearted second feature by French director/co-writer Lea Fehner. Drawing heavily on Fehner’s own experiences growing up in a traveling troupe and starring her own father and sister in prominent roles, this is a very Gallic ensembler which could easily click at domestic box-offices following its mid-March launch and then drum up decent arthouse returns in receptive territories. Glimpsed at a handful of smaller French festivals at the end of last year, it enjoyed a splashy international bow at Rotterdam — landing the “Big Screen Award” decided by a jury of audience-members, a prize which guarantees distribution in the Netherlands.
The French have long shown a knack for such beneath-the-greasepaint extravaganzas, most notably the enduringly beloved, three-hour-plus Children of Paradise (1945) by Marcel Carne, and Francois Truffaut’s late-career smash The Last Metro (1980). Both of those classics were, however, firmly Paris-bound — Ogres profitably embraces the open road and unfolds as an episodic picaresque as the cast and crew of “Theatre Davai” take Chekhov’s one-act farce The Bear on a summer tour of the sun-kissed provinces.
Mathieu Amalric’s On Tour (2010) is an obvious recent parallel, though older audiences may also be reminded of James Ivory’s Shakespeare Wallah from 1965. Like that picture, Ogres is drawn heavily from life — Fehner’s father Francois plays the troupe’s irascible leader, also named Francois; his daughter Ines plays Ines, whose level head and organizational skills are crucial in keeping the motley band in functional shape. Continuing the “family affair” theme meanwhile, Lea Fehner’s husband Julien Chigot serves as the editor; he also cut Fehner’s 2009 debut Silent Voice, which won the Prix Louis Delluc (for a first feature) and was nominated for two Cesars.
One of Ogres‘ main themes, however, is that family isn’t necessarily a matter of blood-ties or wedding-rings. Theatre Davai is in effect an outsize family-cum-community, with every conflict and happiness lived out in an exceedingly public realm. Bed-hopping is the norm, and in general the tiresome restrictions of conventional society simply don’t intrude on these larger-than-life souls (hence that blunt, Rabelaisian title, which maybe sounds better in French). The wayward “son” of the clan is the surly, withdrawn Deloyal (Marc Barbe), whose simmering disgruntlement with his “father” Francois — triggered by a personal tragedy — manifests itself in behavior that ranges from sloppiness to actual sabotage.
Deloyal’s erratic volatility conveniently provides the screenplay — co-written with Catherine Paille and veteran actress Brigitte Sy — with most of its chief pivots, right from the hyperactive eight-minute prologue. This opener concludes in amusingly abrupt style as acrobatic performer Gisele (Eva Ordonez-Benedetto) is dropped from a considerable height thanks to Deloyal’s ineptitude with safety-ropes. An emergency replacement is required: enter the flashy Spanish senorita Lola (Lola Duenas), with whom Francois once had a three-month dalliance, and whose return is greeted as a mortal blow by Francois’ histrionic wife Marion (Marion Bouvarel).
Various other plots and sub-plots interweave over the course of a running-time which looks daunting on paper given the nature of the material, but ends up passing in a pleasantly leisurely, even undemanding fashion. Everyone gets their spell in the spotlight, including Deloyal’s heavily pregnant, tomboyish partner Mona — played by the most exciting European actress of her generation, Adele Haenel. A dual Cesar laureate (for Suzanne and Love At First Fight) before turning 27 — on Jan. 1 this year — the ever-luminous Haenel throws herself into the ensemble with game gusto, her slightly off-kilter personality chiming neatly with the mood of semi-controlled chaos which Fehner seeks to evoke. Crucial to this boisterous ambiance are the contributions of cinematographer Julien Poupard, who deploys 2.35:1 widescreen to capture the teeming vivacity of the circus-like life under and beyond the troupe’s cavernous big top.
Off-screen MVP, however, is surely casting-director Sarah Teper, whose flair for uncovering talented, unexposed performers was recently displayed in Robin Campillo’s Eastern Boys and Francois Ozon’s In the House — featuring excellent work from relative newcomers Daniil Vorobyev and Ernst Umhauer respectively. Her big ‘find’ here is fresh-faced Anthony Bajon, the lad socking over his tiny role — a lucky teenager who becomes Mona’s one-night paramour — with a breezy verisimilitude that suggests he’s just wandered in off the nearest boulevard.
Production companies: Bus Films, France 3 Cinema
Cast: Marc Barbe, Adele Haenel, Lola Duenas, Marion Bouvarel,
Director: Lea Fehner
Screenwriters: Lea Fehner, Catherine Paille, Brigitte Sy
Producer: Philippe Liegeois
Associate producer: Hugo Rubini
Cinematographer: Julien Poupard
Production designer: Pascale Consigny
Costume designer: Sylvie Heguiaphal
Editor: Julien Chigot
Composer: Philippe Cataix
Casting: Sarah Teper
Sales: Pyramide International, Paris
No Rating, 144 minutes