‘Heis (Chronicles)’: Film Review

HEIS Still H 2016
Anaïs Volpé / Le Double des Clefs
A DIY work of unquestionable fluency, but less momentous than it aims to be.

In the feature-film portion of a multimedia project, writer-director Anaïs Volpé plays an aspiring artist struggling to break away from her family.

A timeless theme gets a timely millennial spin in Heis (Chronicles), Anaïs Volpé’s artistically assured, intermittently involving feature debut. Addressing the age-old dilemma between filial loyalty and personal ambition, the talented young multihyphenate combines family drama and cinematic essay, creating a work whose visual and aural textures infuse a simple, slight story with experimental energy, if not emotional urgency. 

The third part of the Heis project, which also includes a web series of shorts and an art installation, Volpé’s film received the World Fiction Award at the Los Angeles Film Festival and is certain to draw interest elsewhere on the fest circuit, and possibly from venturesome distributors. 

At the core of the writer-director-actor’s prismatic narrative is the quest for self-realization and wholeness, emblemized by the Greek word heis and given dramatic form in Pia (Volpé), a French woman in her mid-twenties. She’s eager to stake her claim as an artist after years of study, but the usual artist’s plight is compounded by exceptionally dire economic realities. The bleak employment landscape for young adults worldwide is driven home in narration and dialogue, while audio fragments impart news of natural disasters, terrorism and war. 

Money woes and a busted romantic relationship send Pia back to the apartment of her Syria-born mother, played by the wonderful Akéla Sari (who died before the film’s L.A. premiere). There she aims to focus on grant applications, determined to go overseas to complete her work in progress, Chaotic Bodies. But the home front is complicated by the sibling friction between Pia (Volpé) and her twin brother, Sam (Matthieu Longatte, terrifically convincing). 

Beyond their lifelong competition — nicely evoked in home movies of babies racing on all fours and toddlers sparring over a trike — these sibs are generational symbols, born the day the Berlin Wall came down. More than that, they clearly embody the two halves of an argument. On one side, Sam is bound by a sense of duty toward their mother, and uses that as an excuse to put his professional boxing goals on hold, as well as to guilt-trip Pia. On the other, Pia’s thrashing against the constraining expectations of family and old friends is understandable but feels overemphatic. It spills into her interactions with an ultra-supportive new friend (Émilia Derou-Bernal) and the imaginary figure of an athlete, an emblem of self-sacrifice and resolve (Alexandre Desane, who also serves as one of the film’s three cinematographers). 

Pia’s self-dramatizing might be a comment on a generation, but in the context of the movie, it proves distancing. As she wrestles with a universal quandary, one that The Clash summed up so succinctly — “Should I stay or should I go?” — the film grows slack and repetitive in the midsection. Elsewhere, it’s buoyed by welcome touches of humor: a visit to a pretentious spiritualist; Pia’s voiceover observation that “the problem with getting a job is cover letters.” 

There’s no question that with her liberal use of symbolism and metaphor, Volpé is more interested in the imaginative fabric of her story than its emotional impact, but even so, some elements draw the viewer in while others remain artistic conceits. In the latter category are Pia’s recurrent nosebleed dreams. In the former, every moment of Sari’s performance. 

As a woman who doesn’t understand her daughter’s creative drive — and who lies to a neighbor about her children’s careers — Sari plays a reluctant interview subject for Pia’s project, touchingly shy before the camera, able to go only so far in acknowledging her regrets. In Pia’s nostalgia for her mother’s native city (a fictional, mystical place called Ysfräh), Volpé taps into the ways that each generation, digital-age youth included, longs for places and eras they’ve never experienced, often out of an unacknowledged desire to better understand their parents. 

Volpé’s technique can overshadow her storytelling, but her orchestration of existing material and new footage, shot on a variety of formats, reveals a poetic sensibility and a masterful command of rhythmic flow. When Heis (Chronicles) is most effective, its questions about breaking away and forging an identity, and its exploration of life’s entr’actes and transitional phases, resonate beyond the film’s millennial framework.

Production company: Le Double des Clefs and Territoire(s)
Cast: Akéla Sari, Anaïs Volpé, Matthieu Longatte, Alexandre Desane, Émilia Derou-Bernal, Malec DémiaroLaura François, Julien Debard
Director-screenwriter-editor-producer: Anaïs Volpé
Directors of photography: Anaïs Volpé, Alexandre Desane, Gabriel Dumas-Delage
Music: CHKRRR with the participation of Luis Fabrega

Not rated, 92 minutes