By Jay Kuehner
The reassurance implicit in the coming-of-age story is that of things foregone, universal, known; the particularities of the passage are shorn of their severity and exigence. The subject is supposed, invariably, to have arrived, their journey ultimately delineated in retrospect. The entropy of heightened subjectivity is at last externalized and made legible. The liminality of adolescence, that fount of narrative momentum by which childhood experience becomes patently familiar or perversely exotic, either nostalgic or novel, loses some of its jagged, inscrutable essence in such conventional limning.
David Depesseville’s Astrakan would appear, on paper, to typify the genre: 12-year-old orphan Samuel (Mirko Giannini) tries adapting to rural life with his new foster family, their investment in the child more transactional than emotional due to France’s historically subsidized proviso for adoption in the Morvan. The slightly stoic yet wild Samuel fits the genre archetype, too: strong-willed, misunderstood, yet precariously placed, he could easily be descended from a certain lineage of hell-raisers that have populated French cinema and whose conduct justifies zeros in perpetuity. But Astrakan, while beholden to a certain genealogy of influence (which includes Bresson, Eustache, Pialat, Brisseau, and Blain), is no mere homage. Depesseville, in his second feature, recuperates an evocation of limen as a sensory threshold, at once tender and brutish.
Fittingly, Astrakan begins in the mock-primordial habitats of an arthropod zoo, where Samuel is seen tapping the glass in a seeming act of communion with other confined recluses. He’s hurried away by a family to whom, it becomes gradually apparent, he does not belong. Orphaned after the killing of his father at the hands of police—the fate of his mother remains unrevealed—Samuel takes up residency with a young couple, Marie (Jehnny Beth) and Clément (Bastien Bouillon), who have two children of their own. A stop at Marie’s parents’ farm, where they await fresh milk from the cows, reveals a bucolic idyll presumably safe for a pre-teen in exile, but an air of dread hangs over the place. Not least among the signs of portent is an offhand allusion to the siblings, Marie and her brother Luc (Théo Costa Marini), having been named after biblical figures, as if righteousness might be conferred through nomenclature alone. In this house even the bread is blessed, lest a turned-down loaf be reserved for an executioner. Handsome Luc, bearing the allure of ripe fruit and motorbike wallpaper (confirming the cliché of the live-at-home adult son who never quit adolescence), proves a reliable source of unease.
The affections of Samuel’s neighbour and classmate Hélène (Lorine Delin) offer a reprieve from the trepidation and the torpor, as she summons him to her bedroom on playdates (a viewing of Francis Leroi’s Je suis à prendre  goes risibly amiss). Their bond might redeem Samuel of his status as pariah—she sees his true self in his stifled smile, and is determined to kiss him on the bus—but it is soon betrayed by the same hypocritical forces afflicting the adults. It’s little wonder that Samuel can’t defecate, holding everything in while the ministrations of his “family” are increasingly failing him. Marie’s apparent sympathies are undercut by Clément’s growing, belligerent intolerance, resulting in lashings that leave an already bruised Samuel battered. Depesseville works efficiently, revealing alternating cruelty and care in certain minutiae, the camera acting as discreet witness, for instance, to the wounds on the boy’s neck while he is groomed for communion.
Samuel’s suffering is raised to allegorical proportions, his body foregrounded by the injuries of the flesh he endures. He receives an impromptu baptism after falling in a field of nettles, his rashed torso scrubbed as if he was “possessed.” To the beatings he suffers by Clément he proclaims, with unprecedented resilience, “I’m not going to die,” suggesting eternal life—or that he’s already dead, and thus pain is no matter. Throughout, Depesseville centres Samuel’s experience in all of its hermetic disorientation, never presuming to know just what he’s thinking or granting easy access to his state of interiority. Nor is his innocence insisted upon, complicit as he becomes in his own suffering. At one point, he throws himself before a moving car in hopes of soliciting attention from Hélène, who’s abandoned him for one of his abusers (a beating that occurs, incidentally, on his first visit to the cinema). Some scenes even embrace Samuel’s eccentricity, as when he writhes earthworm-like down a flight of stairs at the home, or into a pond from a pier, as if willing himself into a wholly self-sufficient creature, dependent on no one.
Eschewing the narrative abstraction of Depesseville’s early feature La dernière plaine (2013)—save for a bracing, unexpected coda—Astrakan is grounded in an earthy naturalism derived considerably from Simon Beaufils’ 16mm cinematography. The style is gently restrained: scenes often fade without maximum effect, and edits are succinct to the point of perfunctory. The gesture toward a timeless aesthetic, verging on the classically cinematic, serves as its own form of estrangement. The sense of things-as-they-are is severely undermined by Samuel’s first-hand experience, prompting a split between appearance and perception, of what might be deemed (to appropriate a formulation by Bruno Latour) matters of fact from matters of concern. Thus, while the film-cum-Depesseville is structurally and emotionally sympathetic to Samuel’s plight, he also appears skeptical in the end of realism’s capacity to represent it, to “do it justice” so to speak. That the finale should erupt as a return-of-the-repressed montage, culminating with a radical shift that renders what was symbolic now bracingly literal, may seem operatically absurd, but it is faithful to the manifestation of trauma in Samuel’s sensory perception. It is both overload and release, and it extends the possibility of writing alternate histories.
But so too is the stability of narrative, and the reliability of the point of view, called into question. It is unclear in retrospect, for example, just who was undertaking the ruthless act of euthanizing a litter of kittens bound in a burlap sack, witnessed by Samuel through the car windshield while retreating from the farmhouse. Does Luc loom larger in memory or in actuality? Why is the assault on Hélène so willfully disregarded in the film’s purview of care? What is clear is that Samuel eludes any conventional cure, perhaps because he suffers not from some innate dysfunction, but rather from the conditions of his putative custody, under which he’s expected to abide, grow, yet ultimately disassociate. However, not all is forsaken for Samuel, who’s presumably normalized through gymnastics classes (perhaps the only thing he enjoys with fluency), bike rides with his foster siblings (cigarette dangling from his lip), and school ski trips (a loaded souvenir procured at the gift shop) that are all mostly devoid of incident.
Depesseville intimates that conscience may be like a secret, scrawled on a sheet of notebook paper, hidden beneath a tile in the floor (is the point to preserve or disseminate the message?). A dubious healer, employed by the parents to exorcise Samuel of his most troubling memories, offers to chaperone him through “any questions about your life story.” “I know my story,” retorts the boy, both vulnerable and superable, his spiritual development accelerated by the venality around him. Depesseville cues Bach’s Agnus Dei (Mass in B minor) to signify the pious ascent toward atonement, but the real transfiguration may have already occurred on more secular terms—Samuel hunched over in expulsion on the kitchen floor. The lamb of God had been confused for a sick dog all along.
David Depesseville, France