'Burning Ghost' ('Vif-Argent'): Film Review

Courtesy of Les Films du Losange
A poetic Paris-set meditation on the afterlife.

Casting director Stéphane Batut's second feature, starring Thimotée Robart and Judith Chemla, won France's prestigious Prix Jean-Vigo.

A beautifully made minor-key tone poem about love, loss and death, Burning Ghost (Vif-Argent) marks a promising second turn at the helm for French casting director Stéphane Batut, who has worked on such movies as Stranger by the Lake, Let the Sunshine In, Le petit lieutenant, Tip Top and Paul Verhoeven’s upcoming Benedetta.

Winner of the prestigious Prix Jean-Vigo (past recipients include Godard's Breathless, Maurice Pialat's L'Enfance nue and Bruno Dumont's La Vie de Jésus), the film premiered in Cannes' ACID sidebar and will be released in France in late August. Festivals and a few niche distributors could take notice of a work that elegantly combines a story straight out of The Sixth Sense with a sensual, downbeat romance.

Newcomer Thimotée Robart stars as Juste, a lonely young man who lives in a hovel in northeast Paris and can literally see dead people, whom he meets on the street and kindly accompanies to the afterlife. Juste himself seems to be stuck in a sort of limbo: He's allowed to exist in our world but can't really be a part of it, wandering around as if he were a fugitive on the run while working in a tailoring shop for pocket change.

But Juste's mellow time in purgatory changes when he crosses paths with Agathe (Judith Chemla), a girl he met over a decade earlier when he was still alive, and with whom he sparks an unlikely affair that throws his wayfaring existence into question. With a bureaucratic grim reaper (Saadia Bentaïeb) on his case, Juste will ultimately learn if he can stay with Agathe or be banished to the other side.

Written by Batut along with Christine Dory and Frederic Videau (No Rest for the Brave), the script maintains a tricky balance between a form of contemporary urban realism and the land of the supernatural. For many stretches, it's hard to tell if Juste is actually a ghost or just another forlorn Parisian wandering around the Parc Buttes-Chaumont, where much of the action is set. Even if his secret is revealed early on, he remains a mystery to us.

But as the plot progresses, it also becomes clear that Juste's options are limited by his strange occupation: He can't connect with the living and spends much of his time escorting other dead souls to their final destination. Those sequences, where he runs into strangers (one is played by actor-director Jacques Nolot) and kindly shows them the way, offer up a tender vision of death as a sort of midnight ballad, with Juste leading the dance in his only costume: a sparking black dinner jacket.

Juste's relationship with Agathe, who he follows one day after bumping into her on the metro, is more dramatic. He's clearly fallen head over heels, and eventually wins her over, but that also means he's infringed on an unwritten law of the afterlife. Suddenly he turns invisible, prompting a scene where they make love without Agathe knowing he's there. It could be erotic kitsch, but in Batut's hands there's something melancholic about the whole thing; it's sex tinged with paranormal sadness.

Indeed, what makes Burning Ghost work is not its rather vague plotting, nor the absence of a meaty lead performance — Robart has a strong physical presence though lacks gravitas in a few key scenes — but the way it gracefully depicts a world where the living and the dead comingle like lost spirits looking for a little solace. Everyday places, like a train or a taxi, take on special roles, as does the Canal St. Martin during a denouement that briefly transforms the Paris waterway into the River Styx.

Gorgeously shot by Céline Bozon (Mrs. Hyde, Félicité), who adds plenty of celestial color to the everyday settings of Paris' 19th arrondissement, the film also benefits from a lush score by Benoît de Villeneuve and Gaspar Claus that dips into pure romanticism in spots, especially during the final reels. Although Burning Ghost is a movie about dead people — or at least one semi-dead guy — it still has a beating heart.

Production company: Zadig Films
Cast: Thimotée Robart, Judith Chemla, Djolof Mbengue, Saadia Bentaïeb, Jacques Nolot
Director: Stéphane Batut
Screenwriters: Stéphane Batut, Christine Dory, Frédéric Videau
Producers: Mélanie Gerin, Paul Rosenberg
Director of photography: Céline Bozon
Production designer: Laurent Baude
Costume designer: Dorothée Guiraud
Music: Benoît de Villeneuve, Gaspar Claus

Editor: François Quiqueré
Casting: Alexandre Nazarian, Judith Fraggi
Sales: Les Films du Losange

In French
106 minutes