Jeremy Clapin follows ‘I Lost My Body’ with this atmospheric French sci-fi

'Meanwhile On Earth'

Source: Manuel Moutier - One World Films

‘Meanwhile On Earth’

Dir: Jeremy Clapin. France. 2024. 88mins

Elsa (Megan Northam) is trying to adapt to life without her cosmonaut brother, lost in space during his first mission, when she makes a surprising connection with an alien entity who offers to save him — at a price.  Following up his Oscar nominated, double Cesar award-winning animation I Lost My Body (2019) writer/director Jeremy Clapin uses this live-action feature to explore similar themes of grief and displacement, offering an intriguing, often poignant journey which blends the supernatural with the painfully familiar. Whereas his previous film focused on physical loss, Meanwhile On Earth is a far more cerebral undertaking.

A moving elegy on the power of grief

Clapin’s name, together with a strong central performance from Northam and striking visual elements, should help the film to further festival play following its Berlin Panorama bow. Diaphana is due to release in France in May and, buoyed by strong word of mouth, it may well travel beyond domestic borders to those familiar with the director from …Body, which has been widely seen through Netflix.

A concise opening sequence sets the scene. Snippets of a phone call between Elsa and older brother Franck (in which he, of course, promises to return from his upcoming space mission) overlay foreboding images of a spaceship turning slowly. A quick cut brings us to Elsa, standing before a huge astronaut statue – a memorial to her brother, the town’s hero – which she defiantly daubs with a neon-green ‘F’. 

That ‘F’ is replicated on Elsa’s keychain, and on Franck’s belt in the black and white, television-screen-sized animated sequences which are well used throughout the film. As drawn by the artistically gifted Elsa, who has taken a job in the local retirement home rather than following her talent, these sequences imagine her as an alien being, complete with antenna, up in space with Franck. It is Elsa’s way of feeling close to him and, as the film progresses, her way of processing what she believes to be his fate.

The dawning of that knowledge comes one night, when she hears his voice in the wind encouraging her to search for a seed – when she finds it, glowing white in the darkness, she is compelled to place it in her ear. It connects her first with Franck (voiced by Sam Louwyck), and then with a calm, disembodied female voice, who claims it belongs to one of five alien beings looking for a pathway to Earth. If Elsa helps them find it, they will return her brother; although the cost will be unimaginably high. 

It is testament both to Clapin’s’s creative confidence and Northam’s tightly controlled performance (against which other characters deliberately pale) that Meanwhile On Earth successfully folds these sci-fi (and occasional horror) elements into Elsa’s emotional journey. While there is plenty of evidence to indicate that what Elsa is experiencing is real, there is also the distinct possibility that it is all occurring in her head. But there is no ambiguity to her  human responses: disbelief, fear, panic, desperation, guilt, all recognisable stumbling blocks on the road to acceptance.

Superb work from DoP Robrecht Heyvaert combines repeated tight framing of Elsa’s eyes with drone shots which observe her from high above, a lone figure in the expansive French woodland. It underscores the fact that she, too, is adrift and untethered, her palpable desperation to be reconnected with Franck motivating her to follow the alien’s increasingly outrageous demands. The lovely, expressive score from Dan Levy (who returns from I Lost My Body) also riffs on the dual nature of the film, melding soaring otherworldly, celestial tones with powerful classical strains and occasional choral voices.

Like I Lost My Body, Meanwhile On Earth is a moving elegy on the power of grief, and the lengths to which we are driven in order to feel whole. While it may not have quite the same visceral impact as Clapin’s animation, and culminates in a soft, somewhat-obvious ending, it nevertheless leaves its own mark.

Production company: One World Films

International sales: Charades, 

Producer: Marc du Pontavice

Cinematography: Robrecht Heyvaert

Production design:  Marion Burger

Editing: Jean Christophe Bouzy

Music: Dan Levy

Main cast: Megan Northam, Catherine Salee, Sam Louwyck, Roman Williams, Sofia Lesaffre