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French cineaste Alain Cavalier is best known for his 1986 religious drama Therese, which swept the Cesar awards that year and also won the jury prize at Cannes. Since then, the writer-director’s filmography has grown increasingly esoteric and quite frankly, inept, with a series of experimental autobiographical portraits that are as shoddily put together as they are rambling and often heavy-handed.
This is certainly the case with Paradise (Le Paradis), which finds the 83-year-old filmmaker trying to capture something about faith and despair from the comfort of his country home — a location he shoots with what seems like consumer-grade digital video, with certain shots popping in and out of focus. Add to that Cavalier’s own portentous commentary, recorded directly into the camera with little concern for producing fully audible sound, and you have a work that will please his local followers the most, especially those of the critical variety.
Beginning with a sequence where a peacock dies in the director’s backyard, prompting him to create a makeshift tomb out of rusty nails and a piece of flint, Paradise follows the auteur’s musings on life, death, childhood, and especially the Bible (the title is a reference to Adam and Eve) as the seasons pass and nothing of interest seems to happen.
Perhaps that’s the point. But when, in one scene, Cavalier explains how he experienced what appears to be a spiritual epiphany while buying fish at his local Monoprix supermarket – accompanying the story with a shot of a dead fish on a plate – you either have to take his word for it or call him out as a bit of a shyster.
Read more ‘Goodbye to Language’: Cannes Review
It’s not that Cavalier doesn’t have convictions, whether philosophical, theological or cinematic, but he’s incapable here of condensing his thoughts into a coherent film essay, or at least one that carries a certain aesthetic punch. The French intelligentsia often compare Cavalier’s work to the recent movies of Jean Luc-Godard, but unlike the latter’s last effort, Goodbye to Language, which is a dizzying tour-de-force of image and sound, Paradise feels like someone’s private YouTube channel (there are even cat videos thrown in) meant to be elevated to the level of high art.
A few random dialogue sequences, including one where an adopted girl talks about reuniting with her family in South Carolina, bring something different to the table from time to time. Otherwise, as the film drags on, Cavalier starts inserting lots of static shots featuring fruits, vegetables, his own hands, ceramic bunnies of varying sizes, and a miniature red robot that looks like the one in the logo for J.J. Abrams’ production company – although this film looks like it cost about as much as a bag of pretzels sitting on the craft services table of the next Star Wars.
Indeed, Cavalier perhaps deserves credit for trying to make so much with so little – whether budget-wise or narratively – for taking the most mundane aspects of his life and attempting to transform them into visual poetry. But he’s hardly up to the task, and his Paradise seems obtainable only for those who indiscriminately believe in his talents. And that mostly means himself.
Production companies: Camera One
Director: Alain Cavalier
Screenwriter: Alain Cavalier
Producer: Michel Seydoux
Director of photography: Alain Cavalier
Editor: Alain Cavalier
Sales: Pathe International
No rating, 71 minutes
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