'Plot 35' ('Carre 35'): Film Review | Cannes 2017

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
Fascinating if not entirely smooth.

French actor Eric Caravaca ('His Brother') investigates his own family history in his second outing as a director in this Cannes Special Screening.

French actor Eric Caravaca, who headlined Patrice Chereau’s 2002 drama My Brother and is one of the leads of Philippe Garrel’s new Directors’ Fortnight premiere, Lover for a Day, tries to uncover his own complex family history in the documentary Plot 35 (Carre 35). The film focuses especially on his sister, who was born and who died before him, at the age of 3, and whose short existence was almost never talked about by his parents. But with forefathers who escaped from Spain to Morocco and Algeria and then had to leave for France when those countries became independent, it also offers a fascinating snapshot of 20th-century history and how it impacted one family on a personal level, even if the film struggles to really fuse its macro and micro levels. Beyond TV sales, which are virtually guaranteed, this should appeal to documentary festivals and showcases of history with a more personal slant.

Caravaca clearly likes a challenge, as his idea to make a film about Charlotte, his sister, is immediately complicated by the fact that his mother has no photos or filmed material of her anymore, as she burned everything. “What am I going to do, cry over it?” she asks in one of the film’s several direct-to-camera interviews with her. What slowly emerges is that this wasn’t just a moment of madness or grief on her part but that Caravaca’s mother might have systematically tried to erase any trace of Charlotte, a source of not only heartbreak but also embarrassment for the family, though it takes a while for Caravaca to uncover why exactly her family was so ashamed about the little girl.

Fascinatingly, Caravaca’s mother and late father have very different recollections of their first child, with her mother describing her as 3 years old when she died (which is correct) and a healthy child (which is not quite correct) and his father stating she died after only four months (which is incorrect) and had Down syndrome (which does seem to have been the case). To investigate, the actor then decides to travel to Casablanca, where Charlotte is buried in a grave marked with a tombstone that should carry her portrait, which is possibly the only photo of her left in existence.

Things don’t go quite as planned, though, as, initially, the titular Plot 35 is nowhere to be found. Things become even more mysterious as Caravaca finally manages to find the grave and it turns out the picture has gone missing, but the tomb is otherwise extremely well-kept even though he has no family living in Casablanca anymore.

This clearly very personal quest for answers about the sister he didn’t know he had for years is laid out in the most straightforward manner, with Caravaca slowly putting together the pieces of a puzzle he’s never seen before. (The fact it almost resembles a fictional narrative shouldn’t come as a surprise from someone who’s not only an actor in real life but whose only previous directorial experience is a fiction film: 2005’s Venice premiere Le passager.)  

Where the documentary struggles a little bit is in how to connect the family history — or la petite histoire, as the French would say — within the context of the larger events of world history. In his semi-poetic voiceover, Caravaca suggests a few times that his parents want to forget about both Charlotte and the French Colonial period, as if the two were inherently linked. But he never quite manages to articulate how they are connected beyond both wanting to be forgotten (the shame associated with both seems like an obvious starting point, but Caravaca never spells that out or explores it further).

Beyond the interviews with his parents and some other family members, Caravaca relies on new footage shot in Morocco, some 8mm footage shot by family members in the past — notably at his parents’ wedding, which shows them “happier” than Eric’s “ever seen them” — and some rather hard-to-watch archive material, with the ruling French seen killing Maghrebi locals — chillingly juxtaposed with a chirpy voiceover from the time describing how well the magnanimous French are treating the locals — and some shocking and unexpected Nazi propaganda footage spliced in to explain how disabled people were seen in the past. There’s also a strange detour to the French Cinema Center, where films are preserved and restored, though how that is connected to the main story remains a bit of a mystery.

While there is some sense of his mother’s childhood and headstrong character, there is less of a sense of how his parents functioned as a couple and the director doesn't do much more than simply edit together their different versions of what they remember without digging any deeper (Caravaca is clearly more of a son next to the camera than a savvy and more objective interviewer trying to get to the bottom of a mystery). Even so, this exploration of a family’s secret history is frequently fascinating and put together with some directorial verve, with Florent Marchet’s heterogeneous and atmospheric score completing the package.  

Plot 35 is dedicated to French director Francois Dupeyron, who died last year. He gave Caravaca his first big break in 1999’s C’est quoi la vie, for which Caravaca won a Best Male Newcomer Cesar, or French Oscar, and one of his best roles in the 2001 Cannes entry The Officers’ Ward, for which he was nominated for a Best Actor Cesar.

Production companies: Les Films du poisson, Niko Film
Director: Eric Caravaca
Screenplay: Eric Caravaca, Arnaud Cathrine
Producers: Laetitia Gonzalez, Yael Fogiel
Director of photography: Jerzy Palacz
Editor: Simon Jacquet
Music: Florent Marchet
Sales: Pyramide International

In French
No rating, 67 minutes