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Wildlife: Isild Le Besco

By Scott Foundas

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The marginal cinema of actress-turned-auteur Isild Le Besco

If Chris Marker wasn’t exactly prophetic when he declared in the pages of Libération that Demi-tarif, the 2003 directorial debut of actress Isild Le Besco, heralded a new Nouvelle Vague of which Le Besco’s film would come to be seen as the Breathless, his enthusiasm was hardly unwarranted (even if Demi-tarif is arguably closer in tone to The 400 Blows). 

Released when Le Besco was all of 21—and already well-known as the on- and off-screen muse of Benoît Jacquot—the incredibly assured film covers an unspecified amount of time in the lives of three Parisian children, ages 7 to 9, left to their own devices by an absentee mother who periodically pops in on them and then just as quickly disappears. So the City of Lights becomes their private playground—one that they navigate with artful dodging (sliding under subway turnstiles, shoplifting, sneaking into movies) and little interference from the adult world. The wild invention of childhood make-believe disguises, but never fully obscures, the underlying despair of the situation, while Le Besco’s discreet digital video camerawork is like a pencil jotting down recollections in a journal. 

Since then, Le Besco has completed two additional narrative features and one documentary (on the Marais neighborhood in Paris), and while I haven’t seen the latter, the former confirm her as a boldly unpredictable artist working on the very edges of what is sometimes termed “marginal cinema.” Premiered at last year’s Locarno Film Festival, Le Besco’s latest, Bas-fonds (translated into English as The Dregs, though any confusion with Jean Renoir seems unlikely), could be considered a warped mirror image of Demi-tarif, as it observes three women living, per the Locarno program note, “on the outskirts of civilization” (in reality, somewhere in the French provinces). 

There, the women—sisters Magalie and Marie-Stephanie, and Magalie’s lover Barbara—live amidst a kind of extravagant squalor that makes the Harlem tenement of Precious look like the stuff of a Better Homes and Gardens photo spread. Completely cut off from “normal” society, save for Barbara’s job as a cleaner, the women mostly lounge about in their grotesque splendor, surrounded by peeling, stained walls, accumulated trash, and a TV (with a dildo set atop it) forever flickering hardcore pornography. Mag (played with remarkable commitment by newcomer Valérie Nataf), the alpha female of the bunch, shouts orders at the others in a shrieking bark. Occasionally, they venture out of their crumbling utopia to procure food and other supplies, building to a highly disturbing setpiece inside a small patisserie, which the trio ransack and rob, before delivering a fatal shotgun blast to the proprietor’s chest. 

Despite a handful of flashback scenes depicting, among other things, Barbara and Magalie’s memorable meet-cute (the latter gyrating wildly beneath the strobing lights of a nightclub), Le Besco shows less interest in the how and why of her setting than in the here and now—the carefully observed, moment-by-moment realities of a group of people who seem to be devising their own reality as they go along. Nor does she exploit the material for its superficial lurid qualities. “If we divide humans into good and bad, those we like, pleasant people that we like to know as friends or professionally, and the rest, those we avoid, who bring bad luck, and it’s better not to know or see, then I’m more attracted to bad people,” Le Besco explains in a brief voiceover narration that opens the film. And as in Le Besco’s other work, Bas-fonds extends to the viewer a feeling of being pulled so deeply inside this alternate universe that we ourselves lose all sense of which way is up. Indeed, somehow this frequently startling and profoundly unpleasant film ends up in a place of odd tenderness and beauty. 

The same topsy-turvy dynamics are at work in Le Besco’s second film,Charly (07), an oddball coming-of-age story about a sullen, semi- literate 14-year-old (played by Demi-tarif’s Kolia Litscher, in real life Le Besco’s brother) who runs away from the farm where he lives with his grandparents and eventually shacks up for a few days with the charismatic, slightly OCD title character (the excellent Julie-Marie Parmentier), who, though it’s never directly stated, makes her living as a prostitute. Together, the duo pantomime a kind of marriage (with him staying at home doing the chores while she brings home the bacon) and, in the film’s unexpected centerpiece, act out an impromptu scene from Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening, which the boy is reading on the suggestion of a teacher. Which is precisely the sort of scene Le Besco deploys effortlessly, without our ever questioning its plausibility. Le Besco’s only film of conventional length (95 minutes, whereas Demi-tarif and Bas-fonds run just over an hour each), Charly has also been, relatively speaking, her most widely exhibited, including appearances at the Rotterdam, Buenos Aires, and Tribeca film festivals. 

Almost any attempt to classify Le Besco’s unidentifiable filmic objects is useful only in terms of pointing up what the films aren’t. Because of her preference for untested or nonprofessional actors and her dedication to outsider characters, it’s tempting to place Le Besco alongside Lisandro Alonso, Pedro Costa, and other exponents of the 21st-century fiction/nonfiction hybrid, while the borderline-hysterical sexuality and violence of Bas-fonds prompted Variety (in a predictably dismissive review that derided the film for its “abysmal thesping” and “cruddy tech credits”) to invoke the name of John Waters. There is, in Demi-tarif, a certain reminder of Morris Engel’s Little Fugitive and Frank Borzage’s No Greater Glory in the sense of the world as seen through a child’s exaggerated perspective. But none of those harnesses quite fit, in part because Le Besco’s films don’t readily callany cinematic precursors to mind—they seem to have emerged, fully formed, from some private abyss. 

Where do these films—and this filmmaker—go from here? To date, Le Besco’s most conventional work has been her contribution—one of the better ones—to the 2007 omnibus film Enfances, based on episodes from the childhoods of famous filmmakers, which shows that she is equally capable of working within the confines of the more conventional industrial cinema. (Fittingly, her segment is devoted to another prodigal actor-writer-director, Orson Welles.) Yet Le Besco, who is still not even 30, appears intractably drawn to the margins and lower depths, of society itself and of the moving image. Bas-fonds in particular feels like a significant advance. Or is that a descent?