'Pompei' ('Pompéi'): Film Review | TIFF 2019

Courtesy of TIFF
Beautiful on the surface, but not much to dig into.

Co-directors John Shank and Anna Falguères premiered their first joint feature in Toronto’s Discovery section.

What is Pompei (Pompéi) exactly? Is it a town? A ruin? A state of mind?

In this bewitchingly made but relatively empty feature from filmmakers John Shank and Anna Falguères, it seems to be many things at once, and yet nothing at all.

Set in an unspecific time and location — somewhere between the scorched 70s-era vistas of Terence Malick’s Badlands and a community not unlike that in Lord of the Flies — the film follows a trio of French 20-somethings fending for themselves in a no-man’s-land where adults are mostly absent and children left to their own devices. There’s sex (lots of it), old cars, a love triangle, a handgun or two, relics from an ancient empire (thus the title) and plenty of dead air, but these elements don’t amount to much. In the end, Pompei leaves us basking in its outward beauty, including that of its three arresting leads, but frustrated there isn’t much to scratch under the surface.

The minimalist script was co-written by Falguères, a production designer who’s worked with Mia-Hansen Love and Joachim Lafosse, and Shank, a Belgian-American director whose first feature, Last Winter, played Toronto back in 2011. In a nutshell, the story follows bros Victor (Aliocha Schneider, brother of actor Niels) and 13-year-old Jimmy, who run a makeshift gas station along with their self-appointed leader, Toxou (Vincent Rottiers). Without parents or laws or school or anything resembling a regular society, Victor and Toxou do whatever they please — which often means having sex and charging the local kids admission to watch them through a wall.

As chaotic as that sounds, the group finds itself on even shakier fotting with the arrival of Billie (Garance Marillier, from the French horror flick Raw), a pixie-ish rebel who dresses and acts like the boys, and like them has a penchant for violence. Soon enough Billie and Victor are in love, casting Toxou aside and placing Jimmy — who’s about to lose his virginity — somewhere in between. When a deal to dig up artifacts for money goes sour, relations in the tight-knit group get even worse, leading to a denouement that brings some late action to an otherwise stale narrative.

Without ever explaining where we are or why we’re there, Pompei simply throws us in the middle of this barren teenage wasteland and expects us to groove with it. On the plus side, the cinematography by Florian Berutti is drop-dead gorgeous, framing the characters against monumental landscapes that belong in the world of Malick or Sergio Leone, with many scenes shot in the fading glow of magic hour or the blinding light of day. Likewise, set design by Alina Santos (Let the Corpses Tan) uses spare décors — an abandoned bunker filled with graffiti, a few messy bedrooms that look like settings for Larry Clark movies — that further accentuate the sense of abandonment.

But the stylized aesthetics and lack of consistent storytelling ultimately make Pompei feel more like an extended Levi’s ad than a feature movie. Plot-wise, the filmmakers seem to be grasping at straws — albeit some highly photogenic ones — and we wind up doing the same. Deep in Shank’s and Falguères’ creation is, perhaps, a coming-of-age tale where youth is witnessed in all its primal intensity, in its utter desolation and us-against-the-world mentality. But those concepts seem to be buried too far below ground, in a film that requires us to do too much excavating.

Production companies: Tarantula, Good Fortune Films, micro_scope
Cast: Aliocha Schneider, Vincent Rottiers, Garance Marillier
Directors, screenwriters: John Shank, Anna Falguères
Producers: Joseph Rouschop, Valérie Bournonville, Clément Duboin, Kim McCraw, Jasmyrh Lemoine, Luc Déry
Executive producers: Karim Cham, Florence Cohen
Director of photography: Florian Berutti
Production designer: Alina Santos
Costume designer: Claire Dubien
Editor: Julie Brenta
Sales: Jour2Fête

In French
95 minutes