After thirteen years and with over 1,700 performances under their belts, you would think that Puppet State Theatre – the company behind The Man Who Planted Trees – would pack up their acorns and have a bit of a rest. It’s a pleasure to say that the company are still performing this astoundingly delightful show, and are bringing theatre to people of all ages with a tale that is sadly more vital than ever.
In 2019 this piece is glaringly important. Not only because of its ecological standpoint, but also due to its nuanced themes of neighbourly respect, kindness and appreciation. Adapted from the short story by Jean Giono, the show follows Elzéard Bouffier, a shepherd who single-handedly begins to re-plant 10,000 trees. He does so without seeking praise or glory – it is only Jean (and Bouffier’s dog) who realise the tremendous feat the man undertakes.
It is remarkably rare to find a production which appeals to the masses without cheap tactics, relying simply on the power of its storytelling and the raw, emotional heart of its message. It’s spectacular that so much can be communicated here with through theatrical magic, exquisite world-building and cracking humour.
With the same puppets in use for over a decade, cherished by puppeteers and audience alike, there’s a deep warmth to this multi-sensory and engaging production. The power and importance of The Man Who Planted Trees only increases with age. It is an exquisite balance of humour, emotion, heart, war, pain and beauty. This isn’t only something to catch during the Fringe – this is something to see anytime you can.
Taking inspiration from real events, Corpus Christi, named after the Christian feast the film builds towards, centres around the spiritual awakening Daniel receives while serving time in a Polish detention centre for youths. Upon release, Daniel wishes to repent; in search of absolution, he desires to become a priest but is unable to do so due to his criminal record. Unwilling to work in a sawmill for the rest of his days and stumbling upon a chance encounter with an ailing vicar, Daniel takes on the name of the prison chaplain, performing sacramental rights in the vicar’s absence and he begins to find a sense of forgiveness in a village suffering from a tragedy.
As fragile and unsettling as he is charming, Bartosz Bielenia carries Corpus Christi, there is no question about this. Side characters play their part, but all receive a lift in scenes they share with Bielenia. Closer to the start of his career than the end, Bielenia commands a measure of emotions which is enviable to even seasoned experts. Using a concoction of troubled confusion, anxiety and lashings of aggression, he still achieves Pacewichz’s humour in the script in a natural way with co-star Eliza Rycembel.
The film is a rare piece which communicates much by saying little; few issues are drawn out or laid bare to the audience. The symbolic struggle of political over religious influence or power is not spelt out, but rather proffered up for our interpretation. A crucial idea is that no matter the influence office possesses, only one form of authority can force the other to, quite literally, bend the knee. Power-play, particularly masculine, is intrinsic to the plotline. In recognising Daniel’s influence over the community, Leszek Lichota’s Mayor of the town gives a subdued performance, resonating with Komasa’s stringent realism in direction. There are multiple opportunities for melodrama, for exaggeration and outright antagonists, but thankfully we never fall into these pitfalls.
With reverence, even while acknowledging the declining faith in Europe and that many churchgoers do so out of habit rather than belief, Mateusz Pacewichz’s script refrains from petty jabs at religion. Instead, it allows commentary of the church’s apparent confusion over redemption, confession and forgiveness. Sexton for the vicarage – Aleksandra Konieczna as Lidia – is the representative of the judgement which dictates these communities, with a sense of self-conflicting authority, which hinders future generations’ opportunities to grow in this brutal coming-of-age drama.
Corpus Christi is a quiet film, unafraid of holding both the moment and indeed the shot. It paces itself to the beat of the audience’s breath, stilling in the poignant moments of death or reflection, with cuts occurring in quick succession via the introduction of club-anthems, drug abuse and strobe lighting. Piotr Sobocinski Jr’s cinematography works, but struggles to find a reflective vision for the film, unsure of how to stylise the aesthetic. In aiming for realism, the film has choice moments of spectacle, usually at the hand of effects, lighting or performance, rather than editing or camera work. There’s a blur, which complements interior shots of smoke or incense, but one can’t help feel the hollow coldness of the blues and greys aren’t being used to full effect, excluding, of course, an uncomfortably brutal climax.
Viscerally, the conclusion absconds from the perverse silence which has set the pace before it. A gut-punch, this finale is a shattering of the illusory happy ending, a reminder of the film’s subcutaneous message that the young are the ones paying for the attitudes of established communities. Following his previous feature film Warsaw 44, Corpus Christi is principal evidence of Jan Komasa’s spectacular ability as a filmmaker, in and outside of Poland. The elements are there, and further collaboration with Bartosz Bielenia is hopefully on the cards as the two evolve together.
Westworld, but closer to reality, La Belle Époqueplaces the addictive nature of nostalgia at the forefront of its narrative. Posing that this re-enactment of the past has its benefits, but it’s drug-like properties are far from a healthy escape, that the past is pleasurable but has capabilities of crippling the future. When disillusioned artist Victor crosses the path of screenwriter Antoine’s invitation to take part in his ‘time travel’ show, in which wealthy individuals embark on nostalgic trips, Victor uses this as a means to travel back to the 70s’, where he met the love of his life.
And really, the love of his life could arguably be the time-period itself with how Nicolas Bolduc’s cinematography frames the nicotine-stained air permeating Victor’s memories. Theatrical in illusion, there is a tremendous sense of the performance ability on show throughout La Belle Époque. As his God-complex reigns supreme, director and screenwriter turned cupid Guillaume Canet’s character of Antoine offers a dissection of the behind-the-scenes skeleton to movies, theatre and media. Earpieces and set designs, sudden changes to the script and orgy direction – it’s a tough gig.
Canet’s ambition, to re-ignite the creative furnace of Victor’s talent, seems to tie itself into his failed marriage with the Cheshire grinning cheat, Marianne. Fanny Ardant achieves a rarity within romantic comedies. A redemptive arc, from callous, understandable frustrations, to an empathetic character without reversing everything which made Marianne interesting. It comes as no shock, that the love of his life has always been Marianne, and the young woman Victor meets in the café, Margot (Doria Tillier), with whom he falls in love, is a refreshingly engaging performance, echoing Brigitte Bardot or Anna Karina. And who would deny a revisit to the sound score of the best days they had?
In a world in which you could dine with Marie Antoinette, get royally leathered with Ernest Hemmingway, or chat it out with the Third Reich (for whatever reason) the beauty of Nicolas Bedos’ script comes from the sincerity of Victor’s request to not live the life of another, or to piggyback stories, but merely replay his own. Daniel Auteuil’s transformation from beleaguered, pathetic punching bag of a man who resigns himself away from social media and digital dominance into rejuvenation, though reliant on the past, is as humorous as it is charming. His chemistry with all other performers, from lead to side, is exceptional, suggesting a genuine sense of believability as he delves deeper into Antoine’s French cafes and weed dens.
A cautionary word, Bedos’ film is for the sweetest of teeth. Straying from outright happy endings, there are heapings of sepia-tinted sentiment. Keeping La Belle Époque somewhat grounded, Bedosstringently maintains its plot device, refusing to deviate from the narrative mechanics, where so many other romantic-comedies would fall back into a traditional third act structure. The resolution sticks within the boundaries Bedos’ has set-up, a finale which certainly offers a distinct difference from the opposites the genre would habitually fall upon.
La Belle Époque is perhaps the closest a French romantic-comedic farce will achieve recognition from a Hollywood audience. In certainty, the most recent with pangs of Richard Curtis. It’s this dedication to its plot-devices and characters make Bedos’ film a rousing success of comedic gold, with just enough drama to drive forward our leads. You may leave with toothache, but sometimes an indulgence in sucrose serves to remind us to unburden ourselves of pessimistic attitudes, gander at the past, but continue to move forward with our lives.