This was the first disappointment of the festival for me. The festival brochure makes much of the prize and high critical ratings that the film has received but it seems to me that it takes too much time over its limited character studies. The praise perhaps helps to demonstrate the gulf between the festival critic and the cinema audience – even one attuned to arthouse films. Festival critics are keen to latch onto something new. The two directors, Gilles Deroo and Marianne Pistone were making their debut feature. DoP Eric Alirol shot on 16mm blown up to be projected on 35mm – which we watched on the large Pictureville screen – and this is perhaps another reason for its critical success since the film looks and feels quite different to most of the festival’s digital offerings.
There has been a debate about ‘slow cinema’ over the last few years and there is certainly an argument to say that having time to reflect and observe can create new experiences for audiences. But there must be something to see and something to think about. Here I thought that we needed to know a little more about the people and the place. The title (‘Sheep’) refers to the nickname given to a young man (presumably aged 17) who is forcibly removed from the control of his mother by local social services and who gets himself a ‘live-in’ kitchen job in the small coastal town of Courseulles-sur-Mer in Basse-Normandie (the site of Juno beach for the Canadians during the D-Day landings). We see Mouton at work and at play with the others who work in the restaurant-hotel and with his friends in the town. There is a dramatic incident halfway through the film but little in the way of conventional narrative (a young waitress starts work in the restaurant and Mouton starts a relationship with her). At the end of the film you do feel that you have learned something about the lives of a small group of people in a particular region of France – but that doing so has been a bit of a slog.
This isn’t to say that the film is without merit and several scenes work very well. To pick a couple at random, a young man feeds the dogs in a dark and dingy kennel block and then hoses himself down. In another the central character comes back from the beach and washes the sand from his feet (in a big close-up). These simple actions work well on screen but I couldn’t help thinking that they might have been more effective in a series of short films. Similar sequences (filmed rather differently) are offered in some of the shorts which have accompanied the feature screenings at BIFF.
I feel mean in not responding more positively to Mouton but it is in the end a matter of taste and what we think cinema is for. For a feature of this kind (100 mins) I personally want more to get my teeth into. If the intention is to explore a documentary drama technique, I think that could work in half the time.