Dir. Philippe Ramos. Fr-Swe, 2007. 100mins.
This five episodes piece, only the last section of which actually deals with Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick, is a Freudian attempt to explain why Captain Achab became the driven man he was.
It's the kind of picture that should please certain film theorists and tickle the fancy of certain festivals - but leave all the rest of its audience rather cold. A fictional lecture on the fictional background of a fictional character, this is a kind of intellectual game-playing favoured in academic circles, though it neither expands on nor deepens any understanding of the original text.
Despite the large epic scale which this period story supposes this turns out ultimately to be pretty much a minimalist chamber piece. Some critics may be smitten by the more unusual aspects of the project and its artistic achievements, including the accuracy of the framing and the careful phrasing of the stylized narration.
But Ramos' academic approach and theatrical staging, combined with his predilection for voice-over narrative, leave little room for life to bloom onscreen. Any prospects beyond festivals and art-house cinemas seem pretty limited.
Each one of the five episodes supposedly covering Achab's entire life from birth to death is entrusted to a different narrator, their accounts sometimes including events the character couldn't have actually witnessed. In the first, Achab's father (Stevenin) retrieves him from a doting spinster aunt and takes him into his mountain lodge to make a man out of him. Then the father engages in a short and tragic affair with a lusty girl (Kodja) at the end of which he is killed. The boy is sent back to his aunt, Rose (Heftre), who takes over the narration in the second part, to describe how defiant young Achab had became by now.
Rose marries a dandified sadist (Katerine) who tries to beat Achab into submission, but instead drives him away to fend for himself. A brutal encounter with a highway robber (Pelet) almost leaves the boy dead, who is left unconscious in a boat going down the river towards the Ocean, to be saved by the third narrator, kindly-hearted Mulligan (Brandt), a priest who unsuccessfully tries to make an altar boy out of him. But the draw of the ocean is too strong and the tales of the sailors far too tempting.
Achab turns his back on faith and, by the fourth episode, skipping over a major part of his life, he is no longer a boy (Leclaire) but an adult (Lavant). Now a feared and respected captain, whose mangled body, minus one leg, is found on a Nantucket pier and brought to the house of Anna (Blanc) a widow who sees in him a divine replacement for her late husband. But Achab will not stay put. Rejecting the cosy retreat he is being offered free of charge, he goes back to sea.
At this point the last narrator, Starbuck (Bonnaffe), Achab's second in command on the whaler Pequod, picks up the thread of the tale, recounting Achab's final and tragic encounter with Moby Dick.
Director Ramos alters the end of the novel by having the most famous one-legged skipper the world has ever known commit suicide to be united with his nemesis. Though evidently dealing with a purely American story which ought to be intimately related to American landscapes, the picture was shot in France and Sweden.
Melville scholars may have quite a few problems here, from the very first shot of a woman's sex in close up (what would have Melville thought of that'), Achab as a mountain boy and the choice of highlights supposed to represent Achab's entire life.
Less knowing audiences would find it difficult to cope with the theatrical staging imposed by Ramos on every scene and the declamatory performances of his actors, softened once in a while by the personality of an interpreter like Dominique Blanc.
Painterly framed, with a soundtrack using folk, pop and classic selections to underline the script's intentions, Ramos, who not only wrote, directed and edited the film but contributed to its art direction, has a taste for the surrealistic image (giant Achab looming over goldfish-sized Moby Dick). He no doubt feels this supports the film's thesis that it is Achab, not the whale, who is the bigger subject here.
Philippe Ramos, inspired by Herman Melville's Moby Dick
Erika von Weissenberg
Pierre Stepahne Meuge