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The Plough (Le Grand Chariot)

Philippe Garrel casts his three scions in this delicate yet uninspiring movie about family connections and dying puppeteering traditions - from the 73rd Berlin International Film Festival

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Louis (Louis Garrel), Léna (Léna Garrel) and Martha (Esther Garrel) work with their father (Aurélien Recoing) and grandmother (Francine Bergé) in a travelling puppet show somewhere in France. The mother passed away years earlier, leaving the closely-knit family more united than ever. They work day and night in order to craft the dolls and also the dialogues that will elicit laughter from the small but attentive audiences. The crowds consist entirely of small children, particularly girls.

Louis is the only one whose heart isn’t entirely in the family business. He dreams of becoming a painter. He invites his inseparable friend Pieter (Damien Mongin) to work with his family, a good-looking young man who shares the canvas ambition with best mate. At first, all goes well. But then the father unexpectedly dies, leaving his children scrambling for a purpose. Meanwhile, Louis fathers a child with a woman called Helene (Mathilde Weil), but he dumps her in favour of another lady called Laure (Asma Messaoudene) before the baby is even born. But Pieter is there to pick up the pieces: he immediately starts a relationship with Helene and takes over the father role. Louis isn’t jealous. In fact, the unorthodox family structure seems to bring the two old friends closer together. At one point Louis asks his best mate: “how is my son doing?”

While the males benefit from a solid narrative arc, the females remain mostly flat and secondary. Their motivations and desires are never allowed to burgeon, except perhaps for their commitment to the travelling show. Another problem is that The Plough never rescues the charm and the magic of the puppets. The puppet shows are lacklustre, and they are not captured in any particularly elegant, vibrant and innovative way. Both the film plot and the puppet stories plod heavily forward without a clear sense as purpose. At time the script is as inanimate as the dolls. What was intended a celebration of an old tradition feels more like its burial.

The only truly remarkable performance is the one of Bergé as the headstrong and yet kind grandmother with a passion for both marionettes and Communism (her devotion to the ideology is such that she was apostatised – ie debaptised – as a young woman). Her grandchildren love and admire her. She is the true anchor of the family.

The Plough is a real family affair. A banal and uncompromising one. The father character is a stand-in for the 74-year-old French director, who was once associated with the Nouvelle Vague. I certainly don’t wish the same fate upon him. I wish Garrel a long life and a long career, with many films to come. But I also wish his next film is a little less esoteric and more relatable.

Philippe Garrel’s 30th feature film premiered in the Official Competition of the 73rd Berlin International Film Festival.


By Victor Fraga - 25-02-2023

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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