Italian director Pietro Marcello made a name himself with a handful of documentaries, including The Mouth of the Wolf (2009) and Lost and Beautiful (2015), before switching to fiction with his lauded 2019 adaptation of Jack London’s Martin Eden, which established him as a bold new talent on the art-house scene.
As much as that film, where the action was transplanted from San Francisco to Naples, was based on an original story, it still looked and felt like a documentary — as if Marcello had somehow traveled back to pre-World War II Italy with his 16mm camera and captured events as they happened. Martin Eden felt like something new even if it was more about the past than the present, using techniques — included archive footage as a substitute for historical sets — that put the viewer in the moment of another epoch.
The medium is stronger than the message.
Working this time in France, Marcello applies a similar method in Scarlet (L’envol), a Bildungsroman-type narrative about a young girl raised alone by her father in the aftermath of the First World War, with all the agony and hardships that entails. The setting has the scope at once intimate and epic of a naturalistic novel, although it’s also filled with elements of fantasy and poetic license, taking its cues from Russian author Alexander Grin’s 1923 book, Scarlet Sails.
The mix of real and surreal, of fiction and non-fiction, doesn’t always convince on a dramatic level, especially when a love story between the young heroine, Juliette (played by promising newcomer Juliette Jouan), and a dashing older pilot, Jean (Louis Garrel), who literally drops out of the sky onto her farm one day, takes over in the second half. At that point, Marcello’s methods — which this time include inserting several musical numbers, like in a Jacques Demy film — can’t compensate for a plot that feels a little familiar, resorting to clichés instead of fresh ideas.
It’s too bad because there are lots of great details on display, especially in the movie’s opening, that ground the viewer in the realism of France after the First World War, when men returned home shell-shocked if thankfully still alive. This is the case with Raphael (the imposing yet subtle Raphaël Thiéry), who arrives at a Normandy farm to find that his wife is dead and his daughter, Juliette, being raised by the caring landowner, Adeline (Noémie Lvovsky).
A giant slab of a man with massive stone-like callused hands, Raphael resembles a Gallic working-class version of The Thing from Marvel’s Fantastic Four, but there’s an artistic soul lying behind all the meat and bone. Desperately looking for work in his trade as a carpenter, he finds a job on a local construction site. But his career is soon thwarted when a rivalry with the village café owner — who raped Raphael’s wife when he was away at the front — winds up taking a disastrous turn.
The small-town drama is less convincing than the way Marcello depicts the daily grind of French rural life in the 1920s, and how some people tried their best to escape it. Raphael may be a man who works solely with his hands, but he’s capable of making beautiful things, including wood toys and sculptures, or else fixing up a broken old piano that will become Juliette’s way of fantasizing about a better life for herself as well.
Fantasy takes on a larger role when the girl becomes a teenager, crossing paths with a swamp woman (Yolande Moreau) who looks like some sort of Normandy pixie, and performing songs by composer Gabriel Yared (The Talented Mr. Ripley) as she helps her dad with his woodcutting. This culminates in a long sequence where, like a siren of the sea, Juliette sings by a quiet stream, unaware that Jean, the swarthy, womanizing pilot whose plane went down, is bathing nude nearby and instantly falls in love with her.
The cheese factor of that sequence is undeniable, though Marcello and cinematographer Marco Graziaplena capture things in such an enchanting way, using grainy 16mm, natural light and tons of lens flares, that you can enjoy the moment without necessarily believing in it. Such is the case with lots of things in Scarlet, although the film slides too far into melodrama territory in the closing reels to be convincing, especially when it comes to a subplot involving a local boy who wants to take revenge on Juliette, resulting in more tragedy.
If you take away all the accouterments, this is basically a classic coming-of-age story about a girl trying to escape her lowly origins, and the pilot who drops out of the sky on “scarlet sails” to hopefully save her. It’s not groundbreaking stuff, but Marcello has a talent for making such material come alive through his inventive direction, whisking us away to a time and place that we experience as if we were actually there. It’s not enough to make Scarlet a great movie, but it’s one that manages to puts us in its shoes the way few films nowadays do.