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A Fairy Tale for the War-Weary
A craggy, wounded, older man returns from World War I to a village in Normandy, France to visit his young wife’s grave and to find their infant daughter. Using his woodworking skills, Raphaël (Raphaël Thiéry) ekes out a living for them both in the worker quarters of a manse, where he makes a family life (not a spousal union) with the midwife, Adeline (Noémie Lvovsky), who caught the newborn in her arms. The toddler, Juliette, will become a a child, a young girl, a beautiful young woman who plays piano. She will dream of leaving the peasant manse, situated outside a mean little town full of nasty villagers, and of flying away on scarlet wings.
Perhaps, like Munro Leaf’s 1936 book, “The Story of Ferdinand,” director Pietro Marcello’s tale is an allegory of pacifism,
Good guys are good; bad guys are bad. Juliette (Juliette Jouan) is beatific. Prince Charming rides in—make that, a suave guy flies in (it’s now 20 years after the war and technological advances are coming to Europe, if not to the small town which has no “petrol” for sale). Add menacing men, lilting songs, a witch’s prediction, and what do you have? Perhaps, like Munro Leaf’s 1936 book, “The Story of Ferdinand,” director Pietro Marcello’s tale is an allegory of pacifism, tapping into the desire on the part of contemporary viewer to distance the self from the war-worn 21st century.
Raphaël (Raphaël Thiéry), center, the woodworker, creates a "family" with his musical talent.
Italian Marcello opens his most recent film, this one in French, with a long view of lines of carts carrying damaged men coming home from the horrors of the Great War. He uses stock footage, colorized. “Colorized” is an appropriate adjective for this adaptation of “Scarlet Sails,” a 1923 romantic novel by Russian writer Alexander Grin—because the story is a fairy tale, barely rooted in reality.
The town witch (Yolande Moreau), right, gives
Juliette (Juliette Jouan), her dream of red sails.
Similar to Hester Prynne of Hawthorne’s novel, the daughter bears a stigma.
Unlike in “Pinocchio” or “The Scarlet Letter,” there are no moral questions posed in “Scarlet.” And unlike “The Banshees of Inisherin” (2022), in which Pádraic’s relationship to the village is central to the narrative and drives the melodrama, Juliette and Raphael’s conflict with the hostile villagers is a simple, unchanging fact, without development, without an arc. There is no story, only a dream waiting to be fulfilled, as if the war had been narrative enough, leaving in its wake only the wish to transcend history, to escape, to imagine an idyllic future brought on by magic.
Lovely or silly? Juliette
(Juliette Jouan), kneeling left,
takes a few dance steps
with her friend and sings
of strong women.
Depending on your appreciation of the fantastical, two scenes with songs are either lovely or silly. In both, Juliette’s thin soprano spins out obvious lyrics. She dances a few awkward steps, twirling a scarf and singing “women are braver than men.” Later, wearing a see-through negligee, she treads water in a lake and sings “I’m waiting for my scarlet sails.” (Guess who overhears her!) As the credits roll, we see Marcello wrote the words to the songs, and one can begin to envision a drama set to music, a musical, even a musical comedy. Though many of those have serious themes (“South Pacific,” “Miss Saigon,” “Les Miz”), many, like “Scarlet,” do not.
The acting befits a dreamscape, with everyone playing his or her role fully, without nuance.
The cinematography is luscious, if at times over-saturated. Befitting a fantasy, Edenic ponds, trees, flowers, and leaves of various shades of green frame or comprise scene after scene. Except for Juliette, the characters look like they came from Van Gogh’s chiaroscuro world of “The Potato Eaters.” The acting befits a dreamscape, with everyone playing his or her role fully, without nuance.
Marcello’s 2019 “Martin Eden” was a fascinating remake of the Jack London novel. The director’s award-winning adapted screenplay was audacious in setting London’s account in Fascist Italy, and uncompromising in its exploration of class. “Scarlet,” another period piece, is of a completely different genre: the Manichean fantasy. Marcello’s film is backed by more than a dozen production companies from multiple countries and was chosen to open last year’s Directors’ Fortnight (Quinzaine des cinéastes)—the alternative Cannes, a program that envisions itself as promoting unusual films and has featured directors from Robert Bresson to Martin Scorsese. That support may have been based on Marcello’s reputation, especially after “Martin Eden.” Or “Scarlet” may have great appeal for some viewers. Not for us.
Date: 2023 (released in France)
Director: Pietro Marcello
Starring: Raphaël Thiéry, Juliette Jouan, Noémie Lvovsky, Yolande Moreau
Countries: France, Italy, Germany
Language: French, with English subtitles
Runtime: 100 minutes
Other Awards: 1 win and 5 other nominations to date