for this week’s Tribune: ‘The Bird’; ‘The Forgiveness of Blood’ [both 6/10]

The Bird
Director: Yves Caumon — UK release 17th August

The Forgiveness of Blood
Director: Joshua Marston — UK release 10th August

Apologies if this publication’s film-reviews often turn into jeremiads over the vagaries of UK film-distribution – but it’s hard to suppress frustration when yet another middling French picture finds an arthouse perch when much more deserving candidates from further afield circle forlornly in the outer dark.

There’s nothing exactly wrong with Yves Caumon’s The Bird (L’Oiseau), a low-key study of grief and guilt built around an impressive performance – as a tragedy-benumbed introvert – by six-time César nominee Sandrine Kilberlain. But neither of writer-director Caumon’s previous two pictures – Boyhood Loves (2001) and Peekaboo (2005) – were released over here, and The Bird reaped respectable but lukewarm notices when premiering at last autumn’s Venice Film Festival.

And for all her skills, the strikingly tall and angular Kilberlain – a 44-year-old perhaps best known for playing the title-role in Claude Miller’s 2001 Betty Fisher and Other Stories – isn’t exactly a “marquee” name on this side of the channel a la Deneuve, Binoche, Tautou or Huppert. She’s seldom off-screen for long as Anne, a solitary woman in her early 40s, living very quietly in her Bordeaux apartment. Clearly intelligent — she’s learning Portuguese — the taciturn Anne works in a repetitive food-preparation job in a restaurant kitchen, where she has reasonably friendly relations with her colleagues. But she is a little frosty when charming, good-looking young chef Raphaël (Clément Sibony) makes persistent romantic advances.

Caumon parcels out information with careful frugality – almost a full reel elapses before even the protagonist’s name is divulged, for example. It gradually emerges that Anne has had a young son, now deceased, and that this trauma has hastened her break-up with her husband. Anne has retreated into a life of simplicity and reserve, from which she is only jolted when a pigeon somehow gets stuck behind a wall of her flat…

Though it deals with emotive subject-matter, The Bird avoids sentimentality by taking a distanced, measured approach. Caumon allows Kiberlain the space to explore a character whose carefully maintained reserve, almost frigidity, manages to be intriguing rather than irritating. Still awkward with people, Anne is evidently much more at ease with her uninvited avian visitor – played by three birds, each of them notably well “wrangled.” 

Scenes in which the pigeon investigates Anne’s disorderly living-quarters have an amusing light touch – welcome relief after the slow-moving, low-key sequences which generally predominate. That said, this particular columbine seems miraculously well house-trained, flapping quite freely around the place for days without leaving a single visible deposit.

If The Bird follows the progress of a semi-recluse towards resocialisation, the Albanian family in Californian writer/director Joshua Marston’s The Forgiveness of Blood moves the other way – becoming effectively housebound as the result of a long-simmering blood-feud. Turning 44 three days after the UK release, Marston – along with his fellow scriptwriter Andamion Murataj – won the prize for Best Screenplay at the 2011 Berlin Film Festival, cementing his status as one of the USA’s more geographically adventurous and inquisitive filmmakers. His Colombia-set, drug-themed 2004 debut Maria Full of Grace also landed a major gong at the ‘Berlinale’, star Catalina Sandino Moreno taking Best Actress on her way to an Academy Award nomination.

This belated follow-up likewise tackles specific cultural issues in a ‘remote’ corner of the world, analysing the impact of the centuries-old ‘Kanun’ – a book of moral codes which still holds considerable sway in what remains Europe’s most mysterious nation. One of the facets of the Kanun is that once blood is spilt in a quarrel between families (“the slighest insult and they go crazy!”), eye-for-eye restitution may be exacted – but only if male members of the “guilty” family venture out of doors. The ramifications of this are illustrated by the example of teenager Nik (Tristan Halijaj) and his sister Rudina (Sindi Lacej) after their father Mark (Refet Abazi) and his brother are involved in an incident that leaves their cussedly awkward neighbour dead.

In many respects Nik and Rudina are “modern” youths, forever texting and messaging their pals on their mobile phones. But their social roles remain dictated by their family structures and genders, resulting in some painful dilemmas and exceedingly difficult decisions – especially for Rudina, who with the menfolk effectively ‘incarcerated’ finds herself given all manner of new responsibilities and freedoms.

Marston and Murataj sensitively balance the requirements of realistic storytelling against the fable-like aspects of their tale, achieving an authenticity of atmosphere – the stasis within Mark’s house is evoked with suitably suffocating stultification – even though the issues on display aren’t exactly of thorny moral complexity, and even though the picture breaks absolutely no fresh ground in terms of style or execution. Performances from the non-professional cast are functional enough, amid a general air of duty-conscious carefulness – Marston and his British cinematographer Rob Hardy evidently at great pains to do justice to the scenarios they depict, sidestepping the traps of ethnographic exoticism and patronising “western” attitudes towards these far-flung locales just beyond our technologically-enhanced doorsteps. 

Neil Young
31st July, 2012
written for Tribune magazine