Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Demi-Tarif
aka 1/2 Price : France 2004 : Isild LE BESCO : 63 mins
Chris Marker reportedly called Demi-Tarif “the greatest debut since Godard’s A bout de souffle” – a quote which perhaps says more about Marker than it does the movie. And it should also be noted that, according to the Edinburgh Film Festival programme, Marker is “at least in a loose sense, the young film-maker’s stepfather” (whatever that means).
21-year-old Le Besco was the female lead in Cedric Kahn’s Roberto Succo, and the very rough-and-ready Demi-Tarif feels like something she dashed off in between acting gigs: the protagonists are three seemingly inseparable siblings aged between seven and nine, all born to different fathers: Romeo (Kolia Litscher) and his half-sisters Louna (large-mouthed Lila Salet) and Leo (Cindy David), the youngest of the trio. They live in a Paris flat where they have been effectively abandoned by their mother – who makes only the most fleeting and intermittent of appearances in their lives.
Otherwise, they pretty much have to fend for themselves, stealing or sweetly “cadging” food from shops, travelling for free on the Metro (they have no problem squeezing under the barriers) and generally running wild. But just as stray dogs mimic the behaviour of wandering household pets, the children aren’t feral in a way that might draw attention: they’re no more than a little high-spirited. There’s no ‘plot’ as such: the only real drama occurs when they’re questioned at school about their tatty clothes. Most of the very brief running time consists of the children playing games, indoors and out, with dreamy, rather precious retrospective narration provided by Le Besco herself (“We had great fun”).
This voice-over is translated in subtitles, as are any instances where the children interact with adults (including some painful Americanisms: “half dollar”, and a reference to the “ASPCA”). But whenever the kids are alone, their dialogue isn’t subtitled – this is clearly intended to reinforce the idea that they are creating and inhabiting their own private little world, but it does so at the price of alienating and excluding non-Francophone audiences.
The basic set-up is a promising, original idea (albeit somewhat contrived) and the extremely low-fi digital-video camerawork (by Le Besco’s brother Jowan) is appropriate and nimbly deployed, with nearly all the shots taken at the children’s height – the camera is like an observant, complicit, silent fourth sibling. The outdoor sequences work particularly well, tapping into previous ‘running through the streets of Paris’ sequences that were one of the hallmarks of the rambunctious nouvelle vague.
Even at 63 minutes, however, Demi-Tarif feels repetitive and padded out. Watching the children at play is charming up to a point, but scenes – especially those indoors – are often extended way beyond such a stage. And many viewers may find the numerous sequences featuring child nudity more than a little discomfiting.
It’s possible to interpret the film on a political level, as an oblique indictment of an atomised society where such neglect (albeit relatively benign neglect) can seemingly unnoticed and unchecked for such a prolonged period of time. But this intriguing subtext remains frustratingly underdeveloped. And while Le Besco is clearly talented – good acting from children is almost always a reliable litmus-test of directorial ability – she needs to get a firmer grip on her material. To sum up: Demi-Tarif – demi-duree – demi-succes.
10th September, 2004
(seen on DVD, 25th August : videotheque : Edinburgh Film Festival)
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by Neil Young