Mar 06, 2023
By Kaveh Jalinous
Phillipe Garrel’s The Plough is a film full of ideas. In just 97 minutes, the veteran French director dares to ask: Why make separate movies about death, love, camaraderie and destiny when you can combine all those themes into one product? The result is a meandering and unfulfilling portrait of a haphazard family.
The Plough centers around a troupe of five puppeteers–three siblings (played by Garrel’s children, Louis, Esther and Léna), their father (Aurélien Recoing) and a close family friend (Damien Mongin). They spend all their time together, performing medieval-themed shows for audiences of young children and confiding in each other for life advice, whether in one-on-one conversations or at the food-and-drink-filled dinner table, in typical French fashion. Their lives are perfectly ordinary, but it’s clear that, given how much they all love their routine, it’s more than enough for them.
That’s all the film is about. Early in the narrative, after an inciting incident, Garrel’s focus quickly shifts to the siblings’ perspectives as they deal with familial drama, unexpected losses, and even love triangles. None of these events have any sense of grandeur, though. They just happen, usually taking place within a scene or two, before getting abandoned by the narrative. The result of this is a film that centers solely around its characters’ emotions. Narrative beats and plot twists come secondary to that.
This style has its benefits and drawbacks. When the emotional events in the story work, they work well. It’s easy to empathize with the characters because their struggles and personalities feel authentic, expertly baked into the perfectly ordinary reality that Garrel has created. The film is also self-contained, like an open-and-shut case. It operates without an agenda, exploring the lives and relationships between five people and not much more.
At the same time, though, the lack of narrative tension often makes The Plough feel redundant and directionless. While it may be easy to empathize with characters, it is difficult to connect with them because they aren’t defined by anything. Instead, they exist solely to propel the narrative forward and to give the film a sense of focus. This is especially apparent in the case of the siblings, who are so lacking in personality that they feel like one mass of a person rather than three distinct beings.
This issue extends into the film’s performances, as well. While the ensemble does have chemistry, none of the actors’ portrayals are particularly notable because they have nothing to work with. Even Louis Garrel–a great actor who has quickly become one of the most prominent stars in the independent French cinema landscape–delivers a largely unmemorable performance. If the actors had something–anything–to do, The Plough could at least make an impression. But, in its current state, it’s hard to walk away from the film feeling anything. (www.filmlinc.org/films/the-plough/)
Author rating: 5/10
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