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The Beguiled meets Black Narcissus in debutante writer-director Marine Francen’s The Sower (Le semeur), a finely etched miniature of quietly cumulative emotional impact. Relating a fable-like but apparently true story of isolated farming women and the virile blacksmith who stumbles into their midst, it landed one of the most lucrative prizes in world cinema — the €50,000 ($58,750) New Directors award — when premiering at San Sebastian.
This exposure should open numerous further festival doors, though the lack of recognizable names in the cast may limit the niche international distribution the pic deserves. Its French release is set for Nov. 15, and deals with Spain and Greece have reportedly been locked down by sales agent Celluloid Dreams.
The literary origins of The Sower are unlikely and fascinating: Francen and her collaborators Jacqueline Surchat and Jacques Fieschi based their script on Violette Ailhaud’s 38-page L’homme semence (The Seed Man), published by a small French company in 2006 but originally written in 1919 when its author was an octogenarian. Ailhaud, who died in 1925, gave the manuscript to her attorney with instructions that it should be passed on to her female descendants in 1952, exactly 100 years after the narrative concludes.
In the last decade, this slim volume, which looks back on Ailhaud’s teenage years during a period of great national turmoil, has become a considerable word-of-mouth success in France. The three scriptwriters must surely have been tempted to open the material up by including details of its composition — there’s certainly enough material here for a feature documentary — but instead keep their focus firmly on Violette’s own story as she tells it.
In the wake of President Louis-Napoleon’s December 1851 coup d’etat — he would eventually declare himself Emperor — Republican forces and sympathizers all over France were ruthlessly suppressed. Many adult men were killed or deported, leaving whole communities populated solely by women and children. Tumultuous early scenes depict the bloody crackdown in kinetic detail, after which Violette (Pauline Burlet) and her fellow survivors make haste to a picturesque hilltop hamlet where they find safe refuge.
Working the land with the local women, they half-jokingly imagine what they would do if some eligible fellow should happen along. They make a deal that any such visitor would be “shared” sexually among the sisterhood — and soon after, as if conjured up by their carnal longings, handsome Jean (Alban Lenoir) duly appears. Violette is deputized to make the newcomer welcome, and the pair bond over literature, Violette being one of the few women in the area able to read and write. Passionate feelings quickly develop, clouded by Violette’s knowledge of what the women have in store for her bearded beau.
Living without men and away from the trappings of civil society — in effect there is no church, no police, no government — the females of The Sower, most of them instinctively of a free minded Republican persuasion, quickly come up with new social rules and norms as their unusual circumstances demand. This aspect gives an intriguing political and philosophical subtext to a film which works perfectly well as a moving, sensual love story between the innocent Violette and her rather more worldly paramour.
Strongly performed by the ensemble cast, with moon-eyed Burlet particularly affecting (as a character some years older than her literary equivalent), The Sower takes its visual cues from paintings of the period, most obviously Realist giant Jean-Francois Millet, a great favorite of Vincent van Gogh. Francen even borrows her title from Millet: His 1852 work Le semeur was at the time a highly controversial piece for the way it unfashionably glorified downtrodden peasantry.
Working within the confines of the squarish 4:3 Academy ratio, cinematographer Alain Duplantier achieves some fleeting moments of transcendent pastoral beauty but otherwise conveys the restrictions of this remote microcosm by concentrating on bodies and faces. The viewer must suspend disbelief when it comes to the somewhat anachronistic makeup (even before Jean arrives the women appear to favor lipstick) and relatively modern-sounding dialogue, while once again digital proves an unhelpful canvas for period drama, especially when it comes to dark interiors. But these are minor rough edges to what is by any measure an accomplished and promising debut from Francen. A fundamentally serious film leavened by a streak of deadpan, droll humor, its quality will ensure even greater interest in Ailhaud’s memoir in the run-up to its impending centenary.
Production company: Les Films du Worso
Cast: Pauline Burlet, Alban Lenoir, Geraldine Pailhas, Francoise Lebrun, Iliana Zabeth
Director: Marine Francen
Screenwriters: Marine Francen, Jacqueline Surchat, Jacques Fieschi (based on L’homme de semence by Violette Ailhaud)
Producer: Sylvie Pialat
Cinematographer: Alain Duplantier
Production designer: Mathieu Menut
Costume designer: Pascaline Chavanne
Editor: Minori Akimoto
Composer: Frederic Vercheval
Venue: San Sebastian International Film Festival (New Directors Competition)
Sales: Celluloid Dreams, Paris (email@example.com)
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