Blue Bird: Cannes 2011 Review

Blue Bird - Movie Still - 2011
Cannes Film Festival
The lilting quality of this Africanized interpretation of a century-old story has a quiet appeal, but it’s too insubstantial to figure much beyond the festival margins.

Belgian director Gust Van Den Berghe's Africanized interpretation of a century-old story has quiet appeal, but may have trouble finding an audience outside of festivals.

CANNES – Part ethnographic tone poem, part magical folktale, Belgian director Gust Van den Berghe’s Blue Bird is a soulful journey across the savannahs of Togo, West Africa, that ponders the enigmas of life and death. But while its macroscopic vistas make an arresting canvas, the meandering film remains too caught between child’s-eye-view simplicity and narrative imprecision to fully engage.

Inspired by a 1909 symbolist play set in Russia by Maurice Maeterlinck, Van den Berghe’s liberal adaptation takes its visual cue from the title, unfolding in desaturated color that’s almost black & white, but filtered through a pale, dreamy blue wash.

The two small children of the story are unselfconsciously played by brother and sister Bafiokadie and Tene Potey, and their family members, villagers and fellow travelers all cast with untrained Tamberma people. Their day begins playing with a blue bird, but when their mother interrupts their games to bathe them, their new pet wanders away. The siblings spend the rest of the day trying to find the bird and the innocence and purity it represents.

Their journey is both real and metaphysical, full of perplexing exposure to an unfamiliar adult world. They cross the dusty hills and parched scrublands but also enter a future dimension in which platoons of children are being prepared for the uncertainties that lie ahead. They even reach a geographically impossible sea that appears to be a portal from life to death.

They encounter their carpenter father, hauling around a coffin he built; a group of bullies who taunt Tene for her supposed female weakness; their deceased grandparents, who sing about loss but advise against sadness. They also meet tricksters and ambiguous characters such as the Chief of Pleasure and the King of Time, all of them with lessons to impart.

Life and death literally cross paths on the road, and while the brother and sister keep finding their bird, or one like it, it ultimately proves elusive. There’s a sweet satisfaction in the conclusion as the two children return home. Their newfound knowledge is suggested by the fact that when their mother washes them again, she finds their clothes no longer fit.

Blue Bird could have benefited from a more elucidative style to make it accessible to the kids that might have been its most receptive audience. But even if it doesn’t exactly amount to much, there are gentle pleasures to be had from the film, scored with occasional bursts of celestial music, and shot by Hans Bruch Jr. with lots of striking low angles and vast horizons.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors' Fortnight)
Sales: Coproduction Office, Paris

Production: Minds Meet, Coproduction Office
Producers: Tomas Leyers, Caroline Strubbe
Director of photography: Hans Bruch Jr.
Production designer: Nils Valkenborgh
Music: Alexander Zhikarev
Editor: David Verdurme
No rating; 86 minutes