Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 3/22/23 – On Sunday April 19, Acropolis Cinema featured a screening of David Depesseville’s feature-length debut film “Astrakan” (France, 2022) as part of the Locarno in L.A. Film Festival at 2220 Arts & Archives. David Depesseville explores the strangeness and confusion of growing up during the prepubescent period of life. “Astrakan” revolves around a 12-year-old orphan named Samuel (Mirko Giananni). Eventually, he ends up living with Marie (Jehnny Beth) and Clément (Bastien Bouillon), a young couple with two children of their own. “Astrakan” is a social allegory disguised as a coming-of-age tale imbued with the latent cringe cruelty of adolescence found in the films of Todd Solondz and French director Claude Miller. The film has been picked up for distribution by Altered Innocence and I hope it will have a theatrical run in Los Angeles.
Using religious imagery and child trauma, this French bucolic is a fusion of rustic and magical realism, a seemingly banal portrait of a family’s mishaps caused by a cognitive dissonance exposes society’s collective cognitive dissonance and the hypocrisies it has been running on and in raising the next generation. The film’s title of “Astrakan” refers to the highly prized soft black Astrakan lamb wool which is popular in Central Asia and Russia but actually comes from the unborn or newly born baby Astrakan lamb. Ironically the black lamb is the one sacrificed for its wool – and it serves as a metaphor for the young Samuel in the story. This is brought home is a supercharged dream sequence at the end of the film against the scoring score of “Agnus Dei” from Bach’s Mass in B-minor as Samuel is swimming in a lake with his foster parents picnicking nearby and astonishingly an orphaned black lamb suddenly appears.
The French couple who takes in young Samuel live in a rural area and comes from a working-class background. Their act of taking a kid who isn’t their own under their roof is more about helping themselves than the kid. Having Samuel around provides them with money they need. The kid is trying to form a bond with his foster mother Marie while the violent outbursts of Clément alienate him more. Samuel’s foster family dynamics and relationship with his foster grandparents are just one dimension of his life.
The kid’s unprocessed traumas manifest themselves in bodily (dys)function (he often clogs the toilet or soils his underwear) while navigating his budding sexuality. The tall girl next door in Samuel’s orbit takes an interest in him as a playmate but she is more sexually aware than Samuel. Due to the fact that they are both prepubescents, the lust-laced seduction initiated by the girl comes off as cringeworthy and awkward. Samuel is awkward in his dealing with boys his own age as well as fostering a strange fascination with his foster mother Marie’s good-looking brother Luc, who still lives with his own parents on another farm.
Depesseville does not strike the usual notes of a bildungsroman. “Astrakan” combines impressionistic and naturalistic approaches with magical realism and symbolic panache, with bleaker undertones. The film has a rich register of dualistic patterns combined and intertwined across each other. Innocence meets sexuality and violence, superstition meets secularism and agnosticism, sacral against profane and sinful, playful against abusive, carnal and criminal, childish and infantile against mature and adult, family and communal against lonely and individual.
In the midst of this vortex, Samuel tries to make sense of the senseless and perplexing, and somehow move forward. Despite his young age, Samuel appears hardened by his misfortunes and accepts his fate with firm stoicism, for the most part. Occasional outbursts by Samuel accompany the most extreme situations. It comes to a head when Samuel is forced to stay with his uncle Luc (Theo Costa-Marino), an implied pederast, or when he is beaten by his foster father after he is falsely accused of something.
The director maintains a veil of mystery regarding the duration of Samuel’s stay with the foster family. It is hard to decipher if Samuel is a new arrival or has been staying with them already for some time. Moreover, his background remains unknown, as trauma relating to the loss of his mother hovers over his unconsciousness. “Astrakan” is rather unual in the coming-of-age genre. Its rural lyricism is coupled with the misunderstandings and melancholy of navigating the whole ordeal. Samuel makes some major misjudgments, including a bloody vengeance he commits in response to a heartbreaking betrayal.
Defesseville does not even attempt to depict this brutal and evil scene in a conventional suspenseful manner. His disengaged perspective lets the act unfold naturally with lyrical realism and an anticlimactic denouement. If “Astrakan” had an allegorical precedent, it would be the narrative archetype of “Teorema.” In Pasolini’s classic, a mysterious character, The Visitor, disrupts the lives of a bourgeois family. The stranger acts as an agent of discord, discombobulating the family’s usual flow of events.
Samuel becomes that archetype of a fool that presumably disrupts the lives of his foster family. Behind a facade of angelic innocence hiding traumas, Samuel voluntarily and unintentionally rattles a stereotypically rural folk’s life in a kind of backhand manner. In his portrayal of Marie, Clément, and their family members, Depesseville assumes a stoical tone, depicting tragedy and hardship in the pastoral existence of the family members. As a victim in the chain of events, Samuel often shoulders the brunt of guilt even if he has no ill intention. Yet his presence upsets the microcosm of rural society’s balance.
Although “Astrakan” becomes an elaborate narrative on the surface but contains hidden layers that reveal themselves upon closer inspection. Its title refers to a special kind of black wool that comes from lambs killed before birth, and there is an inherent cruelty to the film throughout. As the story progresses, a lamb becomes a frequent symbol, amplified by the religious setting and Samuel’s preparation for his first communion. Despite conventions of the coming-of-age genre, Depesseville makes a clever play on the notion of black sheep and Agnus Dei to create an ambiguous character.
A brief epilogue in a séance-dream reveals that the director purposefully used elliptical narration. While the entire family blames Samuel for what happens, Depesseville reveals the culpability of the entire family and society as a whole. The symbolism is more than metaphor with an actual black lamb entering the picture, and the epilogue takes a heavy-handed approach to revealing what had actually happened. Despite being an allegory, the picaresque aspects of the film work as a concentrated representation of the agony and confusion of growing up.