‘The Plow’ Review: Director Philippe Garrel’s Very French Family Affair
Writer, director and occasional actor Philippe Garrel shot his first full-length movie, Marie pour mémoirewhen he was only 19. That was amid the turmoil of May 1968, and since then he has made a new feature every few years, becoming a regular fixture in festivals and arthouses, especially in his native France.
Working with unknown or established actors, including Catherine Deneuve and Jean-Pierre Léaud, his intimate tales of emotional unrest — often the same story told again and again, during different epochs, in color or black-and-white — have turned him into a dependable auteur but also an acquired taste. If you don’t like French movies about love, sex, family, adultery and anguish, then you probably won’t like Garrel.
The Bottom Line
His work has always had an autobiographical bent to it, and one of his best films, 1970’s La Cicatrice Intérieure, starred his girlfriend at the time, Nico of The Velvet Underground. But his latest feature, which is his 26th in a long and fruitful career, feels, in many ways, more personal than ever.
Featuring the director’s own three children in the leading roles, The Plow (Le Grand Chariot) plays like a barely disguised legacy movie in which the filmmaker imagines how life could go on after his own death. To take the title literally: Who will pick up the plow after the patriarch passes? It’s an intriguing question, but one that Garrel answers by rehashing his favorite themes rather than offering something entirely new.
Perhaps his best invention here was to transform his onscreen alter-ego, played by Aurélien Recoing, into a longtime puppeteer working in France’s Guignol tradition (what we call a Punch and Judy show), instead of making him a movie director. There’s an autobiographical side to that as well — Garrel’s father, the actor Maurice Garrel, was also a trained puppeteer — and it’s a clever twist that makes The Plow about a dying artistic craft that, not unlike the cinema, may one day cease to exist.
It also makes for the film’s strongest moments, where we see the puppeteer’s three kids, Louis (Louis Garrel), Martha (Esther Garrel) and Lena (Lena Garrel), staging shows for children who watch with terror and glee, in scenes reminiscent of the famous Guignol sequence from Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (a sequence that was itself a metaphor for the movies). Not only do Garrel’s offspring prove to be convincing puppet-masters, but they perform those scenes with an energy and abandon that’s less present when their characters are just living life and moping around.
There’s reason for all the despair: Their father falls ill and dies during the first act, and then their grandmother (Francine Bergé) has a serious onset of dementia. The question of who will pick up the reins of Le Grand Chariot, which is the name of their family theater, is quickly answered when Louis decides to ditch puppets for regular acting and quickly becomes a star, much like the actual Louis Garrel. It’s thus left to his sisters to keep the Guignol show alive, but it proves to be more difficult than expected as they find themselves facing dwindling audiences and mounting debts.
That story could have been enough to make The Plow a rather captivating portrait of family ties and artistic devotion, but Garrel decides to switch gears for much of the film’s second half by focusing instead on Louis and his painter friend, Pieter (Damien Mongin), who temporarily joined the theater as a replacement.
Already coupled with Hélène (Mathilde Weil), who’s about to have their baby, Pieter decides to leave his girlfriend for a young puppeteer, Laura (Asma Messaoudene), throwing his household into disarray. Soon enough, Louis gallantly swoops in to hit on Hélène, and suddenly we’re watching the kind of romantic musical chairs seen in way too many French movies, including those by Garrel himself.
Beyond a brief scene where we see Martha’s and Lena’s plans to run the theater turn to disaster, Garrel concentrates more on the love quadrangle, which is unfortunate because he’s done that story enough times it’s practically become a trademark. And while the puppets offered an intriguing commentary on Garrel’s métier as an arthouse director, the story of the painter’s doomed affair feels very passé.
At the very least, you can say that Garrel is being true to himself to the bitter end — a take-no-prisoners stance he rather derisively portrays during a funeral scene for his alter-ego, in which the only attendees are his three kids. and a pair of old fans. By committing wholeheartedly to his craft for what now amounts to half a century, Garrel probably hasn’t gained many new admirers, but those who have always loved his work will continue to do so for the same reasons.
Ironically, his son Louis has not only become a respected and coveted actor in France, but a film director in his own right whose latest feature, The Innocent, is a César-nominated box office hit that was just picked up for US distribution. Playing a version of himself in The PlowLouis puts aside his father’s puppetry for more commercial theatrical ventures, which adds yet another layer of truth to this very self-reflexive undertaking.
One could have jokingly titled this film Keeping Up with the Garrels, so much is it about a close-knit family whose business is art and performing instead of fashion and influencing. Indeed, the line between fiction and reality seems to be thin enough here that one constantly leaks into the other. That’s surely what makes The Plow A minor if somewhat memorable work by a director who has left his mark not only on his own children, but on a brand of filmmaking that may disappear along with him.
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