By Thomas Puhr.
Too plodding for genre enthusiasts and hackneyed for arthouse devotees, Savage State will likely underwhelm both audiences.”
Westerns set during the American Civil War are a dime a dozen, but David Perrault’s Savage State (L’état sauvage, 2019) offers an enticing twist: that of a French family attempting to flee the States and return to Paris after the war reaches their doorstep. The writer-director leverages this “outsider” perspective to critique and reimagine the Western mythos, but the end result is frustratingly inconsistent. Too plodding for genre enthusiasts and hackneyed for arthouse devotees, Savage State will likely underwhelm both audiences.
The first act explores the family’s relationship with their adoptive country. The father, Edmond (Bruno Todeschini), sells black market French perfumes to Southern “aristocrats” and has arranged for a marriage between Abigaëlle (Maryne Bertieaux) – one of his three daughters – and a wealthy local. But when rowdy Union soldiers start crashing their social gatherings, he decides it’s time to get out when the getting’s good. He feigns neutrality (“I’m French,” he announces, when asked if he sides with the Confederacy) but exploits his position as a white man in 1860s Missouri. Consider his relationship with a Black woman named Layla (Armelle Abibou), who works as the family maid; she’s not a slave, he’s quick to point out, but an emancipated employee. This distinction doesn’t stop him from expecting her sexual submission, though, nor his wife, Madeleine (Constance Dollé), from “ordering” her to cross a dangerous mountain pass first in order to test its safety.
The family’s cross-country journey – led by the mysterious, stiff-upper-lipped Victor (Kevin Janssens) – comprises much of the film’s runtime, and these passages by turns frustrate and mesmerize. Standout Alice Isaaz is Esther, the youngest daughter. As a woman without a country (she has no clear memories of France), Esther assumes something of a mystical role within the group. The aforementioned mountain pass sequence, in which their horse carriage breaks down in a narrow stretch of road, showcases her otherworldly presence. Blocked on one side by a cliff face, the passengers stuck behind the carriage must inch along the side overlooking a steep drop. Rather than follow this tedious route, Esther walks over the carriage roof to the other side. She even pauses on the roof to admire the view. It’s a genuinely nerve-wracking moment, one which Isaaz’s stoic performance intensifies.
Unfortunately, Esther proves the exception among a hodgepodge of otherwise poorly-sketched characters. Déborah François isn’t given much to do as the eldest sister, Justine, though she makes the most of an all-too-brief scene in which she confides in Esther about her love affair with a female cousin. Their exchange points to what could have been a dynamic character – a “plain” surface masking a passionate heart – but François spends most of her remaining screen time quite literally in the background. Similarly, Kate Moran seems to relish her role as the archetypically-named Bettie, the villainous thief chasing after Victor and his passengers. She’s absent, however, for long stretches of the narrative; a montage of her dancing in front of some hooded henchmen feels conspicuously out of place, as if Perrault realized he hadn’t referred to her in a while and wedged the wordless scene into the middle of the story. The film stumbles most when Esther and the perpetually-squinting Victor fall in love. Their budding relationship subjects viewers to cringeworthy lines right out of a cheap paperback romance (“First time I saw you, I knew that a new life was possible”).
The film redeems itself a bit during its final act, when the narrative flips into a feminist rejection of the American Western. It’s the women who band together to take on Bettie and her cronies after all of the male characters have either died or abandoned the group out of cowardice. The title, it seems, refers less to any particular country or war than it does to the patriarchy itself. With this message of solidarity in mind, Victor’s cartoonish machismo makes some sense, but his scenes are no less of a slog to sit through. Part of the problem is that Perrault wants to have his cake and eat it too: to both subvert and exploit genre tropes. He still includes, for instance, the requisite climactic shootout, but the set piece is poorly staged and fails to offer the sweet, blood-spattered catharsis which the best examples of the genre can provide. If you’re going to celebrate what you criticize, at least do it well.
Still, I must admit that certain moments from Savage State have stayed with me, particularly Perrault and cinematographer Christophe Duchange’s arresting, borderline surreal visuals. A few images even call the work of Ciro Guerra to mind; a beautiful shot of the family’s abandoned goods falling down a cliff – their white clothes, billowing in slow motion, starkly contrast with the vibrant rock face – reminded me of Birds of Passage (2018). Such flourishes, however, do little more than hint at what could have been.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.