A Prince, the second narrative feature from French director Pierre Creton, is rather strange. There is a chorus of narrators for a quiet film. This movie is obsessed with sex, yet almost frighteningly unsexy. A Prince defies comprehensible storytelling and the laws of nature. And despite all of Creton’s formal efforts to make this film nearly unwatchable, A Prince is also quite beautiful.
As much as A Prince is about anything, it is about various residents in a rural French village. We open on Françoise (Manon Schaap), the woman in charge of the local trade school. Françoise speaks mostly about her adoptive son, Kutta, whose existence dangles enigmatically over the entire narrative. (Her narration is voiced by Françoise Lebru.) This isn’t really Françoise or Kutta’s story, though––at least the film doesn’t focus on them. It focuses primarily on Pierre-Jean (played mostly by Antoine Pirotte), who is studying gardening at Françoise’s school. As the film unfolds, he ruminates on various relationships in voiceover (provided by Grégory Gadebois). The majority of these relationships are both paternal and sexual, and take place with the much older men who mentor him.
It’s a well-trod cliche to say that, in a high-brow, arthouse film, the landscape is the real main character. Yet here it is. Creton’s films often embrace the bucolic, and this one is incredibly verdant. Creton, Pirotte, and Léo Gil Mela, who contributed cinematography, and colorist Pierre Sudre all deserve a tip of the hat. Deep green abounds; when a character puts his hands in the soil, you almost feel and smell it right along with him. It’s doubly bizarre, then, that such a sensual film is otherwise devoid of human feeling. Whether confronted with something breathtaking, horrifying, beautiful, or unspeakable, these characters do little more than woodenly stare, navigating their lives like badly programmed Sims.
That rigidity is exacerbated by the film’s lack of dialogue. When characters do exchange words, it’s only to say something inconsequential or make small talk. The real story is told in voiceover, by actors reciting their lines like one might read off a grocery list. Thus A Prince‘s 82 minutes can feel much longer. It’s baffling that Creton wrote this script with three other people (Mathilde Girard, Cyril Neyrat, and Vincent Barré, who plays Pierre-Jean’s eldest lover), considering its dearth of plot and dialogue.
This film is infuriatingly opaque, occasionally compelling, stuffed as it is with eyebrow-raising material. (It probably features more graphic images of penises than any other festival contender this year, and definitely more gerontophilia than most people will find palatable. And I’m not even getting into the sci-fi elements.) But its characters treat everything––infidelity, incest, and sudden, inexplicable death––with barely more than a yawn.
Perhaps there’s something to all that drudgery. For one, there’s a strong argument to be made that the most shocking art one can make about homosexuality is art that refuses to find homosexuality shocking. There’s certainly something tongue-in-cheek going on (e.g. Pierre-Jean does botanical illustrations over close-up pictures of male genitalia).
Those who derided Call Me by Your Name for its age gap would enjoy seeing this film about as much as the bad guys in Raiders enjoyed seeing the Ark of the Covenant. Pierre-Jean, who has a checkered past with his father, cannot seem to meet an older man that doesn’t turn him on—even better if that older man is his boss. There seems to be no manipulation at play here, these men falling at Jean-Pierre’s feet with zero resistance. Perhaps A Prince is a sexual fantasy, then, though that wouldn’t explain its unintelligible ending, nor its mysterious, uncomfortably exoticized titular character. Every frame in A Prince is exquisitely planned and shot, but it demands too much of viewers, its meaning proving too elusive. A director may successfully employ nontraditional narration that makes it difficult to identify the characters, scant dialogue, or unexpected bursts of surrealism. He must be truly ballsy to attempt the three simultaneously. This movie has nothing if not––figuratively and literally––lots of balls. If only it had more focus.
A Prince screens at the 61st New York Film Festival on September 30 and October 1, and will be released by Strand Releasing