Imagination is a wild animal: if we let it off its leash there’s no telling what it might do. Drôles d’oiseaux tells the story of young Mavie (Lolita Chammah) from Tours who has just arrived in Paris. A quiet, book-obsessed soul, she struggles to adapt to the Parisian lifestyle. She feels lost and alone until she wanders into Georges’s (Jean Sorel) bookshop. Georges is pushing 70, he’s misanthropic, critical but passionate above all and the two lost souls develop a strong kinship. Just when the romance begins to flourish, Georges’s dark past with the Sicilian mafia catches up with him and he vanishes into thin air.
To call this film a slow burner would suggest incandescence. Director, Elise Girard is in no rush whatsoever; the camera lingers on shallow frames, performances are muted and restrained but the marvellous soundtrack injects some vigour in between vital scenes. The pas d’escargot rhythm tries to place the audience into Mavie’s perspective and, annoyed by the city’s noise, she seeks out quiet corners to write in.
Chammah is both charming and stoic as Mavie, her innocence is endearing but Girard seems determined to avoid the “show don’t tell” cinematic ideal. We only get a hint of the character’s emotional state through her voiceover when she writes; besides these literary outbursts, Chammah’s performance is subdued.
The quiet love that blossoms between the two characters is so lacking in touch: their love is expressed in elegies, the dialogue becomes poetry and this is how they articulate their passion. When Georges disappears, reality is called into question. The romance at the heart of the story has shades of classic Hollywood, doomed from the beginning, exaggerated by Mavie’s dramatic tendencies. The banal, minimalist aesthetic attempts to display a commitment to realism but ends up feeling contrived like a student film.
The eponymous birds are a tenuously connected subtext; we are told that the seagulls have been contaminated and are dying in mid flight. Their role in the film is awkward, they punctuate some of the overly languid sequences well but there’s not enough to start calling Drôles d’oiseaux the emo, millennial Birds it might try to aspire to.
Mavie sees life as it were a novel: dramatic and full of betrayals. However, the movie either fails or refuses to link form and content and play with this idea visually, which leaves the audience feeling less connected to the protagonist and more like they are watching her in a fish tank. However, despite crawling off to a tedious start, Drôles d’oiseaux is charming and entrancing once it begins to open up.
Drôles d’oiseaux (Strange Birds) does not have a UK release date yet.
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