news ‘Beau Travail’ Inspires a New Take on French Legionnaires in ‘Human Flowers of Flesh’ — Review

To appreciate “Human Flowers of Flesh” one must surrender to the slow and hypnotic rhythms set by the sea itself. The ocean is a source of ongoing fascination to German director Helena Wittmann, whose debut feature, “Drift” was set in a largely dialogue-free realm aboard a boat as a woman charted a course across the North Sea. This time around, the woman in the largely dialogue-free realm aboard a boat is charting a course across the Mediterranean Sea, a visual distinction that may only be detectable to marine professionals and Atlantic Ocean enthusiasts. Irrespective of the conceptual similarities to her debut, “Human Flowers of Flesh ” is a meditative gem powered by images, shot by Wittmann herself, that, on their own terms, make the film worth your time.

Ida (Angeliki Papoulia of “Dogtooth”) is a Greek wanderer with the mien of a woman more at home on the road than in any fixed abode. She carries herself with the resolute, slightly detached energy of someone driven by highly personal motives, coming into her own in two long sequences of swimming in the sparkling sea. Wittmann tends to film Ida in motion, whether through the circular movements of an assured breast-stroke or hiking a chalky coastal hill to the soundtrack of cicadas screeching. She embodies a spirit expressed in a journal read aloud at night: “He said that the littleness of the world didn’t bother him too much and that its roundness delighted him. He liked the way it was made because, like that, when you went away from one place, you necessarily got nearer the other and, when you had no home, a round earth was the best earth you could have.”

Ida is embedded with a crew of men hailing from Portugal, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Germany, and Algeria. There is no exposition to explain how these citizens of the world came together, they are presented as bound by a shared desire to keep moving forward, passing the time in companionable silences that occasionally give birth to snippets of conversation before returning each individual to their solitude. A gorgeous early sequence set in a bar in Marseille captures the vibe of port towns, where people passing through come to bridge the gap of their scattered origins. Ida sits to the side observing, as a cocktail of languages form a murmur amidst lights twinkling, lovers kissing, sea gurgling. The warmth of the night is all but palpable in the healthy glow of faces. Motifs that recur across different conversations are the sea and the French Foreign Legion.

One thing about Marseille: along with dilapidated grandeur, its suburb, Aubagne, holds the French Foreign Legion headquarters. Previously, this HQ was in Sidi Bel Abbès, until Algerian independence set loose the shackles of French colonialism in 1962. Drawn by the anecdotal snippets she hears, and the sight of legionnaires marching and singing, Ida and her crew chart a small yacht across the Mediterranean to Sidi Bel Abbès. This is the plot, such as it is, yet this minor narrative framework exists in order for Wittmann to dive away from it, into the elements, under the sea.

A secondary function of the film is to sample the 1999 Claire Denis masterpiece “Beau Travail.” It is the ghost in the dream machine of “Human Flowers of Flesh,” felt as soon as the French Foreign Legion is mentioned via a journal extract read aloud on a balmy Marseille night: “I remember the boredom, the heat, the dust. Somebody dies and is buried in the sand. Everyone’s looking for closeness and other bodies. It is both raw and tender.” Those lines dial up Denis’s indelible images of legionnaires training under the relentless Djibouti sun, their topless torsos glistening with sweat under the gaze of Sergeant Galoup who has become homoerotically obsessed with the newest recruit. Denis Lavant, aka Sergeant Galoup, appears in a mirage-like climax in “Human Flowers of Flesh,” nailing down the film’s heart-on-sleeve connection to “Beau Travail” while adding a coda of surreality.

This surreality has been building from the moment that Ida and her crew leave Marseille. Long takes and intuitive editing create an atmosphere that has more in common with hallucinations than narrative film-making. To whit: a crew member lies in his bunk to the audio of the boat creaking as it rocks. Cut to microscopic images of trippy sea organisms, as if they are a dream he is having. Conversations thin, as the visual language takes hold in a manner that is, at times, opaque to a fault. “Human Flowers of Flesh” becomes stranger and more liminal until one is literally lost at sea. This frustrating condition is not without its pleasures and consolations. The question of what the title is referencing provides a poetic source of intrigue. Wittmann’s camera frequently dips under the surface to focus on floral underwater lifeforms and, in one moment, she simply lets the color blue fill the frame for 10 seconds until the camera picks out bubbles emanating from the sea bed. Wittmann – like her protagonist Ida – is driven by oblique motives that only occasionally come into focus.

Grade: B+​

“Human Flowers of Flesh” premiered at the 2022 Locarno Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.