Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Love and Its Discontents: The Park (2016)

Naomie Vogt-Roby and Maxime Bachellerie in Damien Manivel’s The Park (Le parc, 2016).

Damien Manivel’s The Park (Le parc, 2016), co-written with cinematographer Isabel Pagliai, starts off nice and easy, but it quickly turns bonkers in the best way possible.

Naomie (Naomie Vogt-Roby, just 15 when she made the film) meets a boy (Maxime Bachellerie) at a large woodsy park on a first date. She’s short and sensible; he’s lanky and shy. The two teenagers sit together awkwardly, converse awkwardly, walk around awkwardly, and before you know it are kissing in a secluded spot. I’ve just praised another film for its naturalistic romance, but here the romance succeeds precisely because it’s so overdetermined. The transformation of two clumsy teenage strangers into a mutually attracted couple is a kind of magic that’s almost impossible to replicate onscreen, so the film doesn’t even try. Each scene is a vignette – they walk around, they look at squirrels, they discuss their families, she does a handstand – that, combined in the right order as they are here, sketch the development of a romance. But in true cinematic fashion, how we get from one vignette to another is hidden in the editing (by William Laboury), left as an exercise for the viewer, and whatever we can come up with is infinitely more convincing than what could have been put on the screen.

They’re teenagers, so we know it probably won’t go further than kissing, but a few moments hint that it might (or even already has, offscreen). Instead, we get a sudden parting, with the boy walking off and leaving Naomie in the park at dusk. She notices that he’s left behind his pack of Lucky Strikes, texts him about it, and waits in vain for him to return. The shot that tells us he doesn’t return is heartbreaking: we see a park devoid of people.

Then he returns her text with an even worse revelation that explains why he refused to take a selfie with her earlier. Their exchange is presented in what in hindsight is the only reasonable way to portray it. Think about the experience of texting: the predominant action isn’t conversing, or even reading, but waiting. All that waiting leaves you with the time to think, imagine, and overthink, and tensions can run high. The only way to really capture all that is to do it for real: their exchange is shot in real time, a single shot over ten minutes, conveying about a dozen lines of dialogue with onscreen titles as the light around Naomie gradually fades into the oncoming night. It’s harrowing.

Suffice it to say that he’s not coming back, and Naomie’s parting shot is to say that she wishes she could go back in time to before they met. She falls asleep and wakes into darkness. Then – and there’s really no way to prepare you for this, so I’ll just say it – she starts walking backward through the park, never looking behind her, as if she’s realizing her time-travel desires. Though it’s dark and there are no street lamps in the park, Pagliai lights each scene clearly while preserving the sense of darkness by limiting the range of the lights and aiming them at the ground. The clear presence of light makes the darkness feel even darker, underscoring the fact that this is a wooded French park. (It’s actually five parks stitched together.)

Naomie’s soon discovered and followed by a park guard (Sobéré Sessouma, who’s black), to whose overtures she doesn’t respond, or even blink at. Things get surreal. The guard starts mirroring some attributes of her one-day boyfriend. He puts her on a rowboat and takes her out onto what is presumably a lake. Fun fact: this part’s so dark that we can’t see the water in the closeups, so it could all have been shot on land, though the authenticity of everything else makes me doubt it. The guard seems like his name could be Charon, and there’s a growing sense of (slightly racist) menace to the unfolding events.

Unusually for me, I’m not going to spoil the ending to this 72-minute film, not because it’s any particular surprise, but because what’s electrifying about the second half of the film is how unpredictable it is getting to that ending. In its structural distribution of predictability, it’s the exact opposite of Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild (1986) – which begins with an endless possibility that’s narrowed down in the back half – and finishing the story for you, no matter how it finishes, would ruin it. All I will say is that the sound design (by Arnaud Marten and Jérôme Petit) of the last scene is ingenious in its symbolism. The film as a whole is so engrossing that we never stop to ask the realistic questions, like why Naomie’s parents never call her to go home.

As Taylor Swift sings, “Love is a ruthless game / Unless you play it good and right.” The Park makes us feel just how ruthless it can be.

CJ Sheu has a PhD in contemporary American fiction from National Taiwan Normal University, in Taipei. He also writes about films and film reviews on the side, and has been published in Bright Wall/Dark Room and Funscreen (Taiwan). Check out his blog, or hit him up on Twitter @cjthereviewer

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