Fantasia Festival has provided a bevy of opportunities to showcase some truly great genre films, primarily focusing into the sci-fi/horror route of things. The grisly, spooky, and downright weird have been on full display since the start of the festival, and it was something I had prepared myself for going in, but there was one film on my list that felt different. Unless it went drastically left of its synopsis, David Perrault’s Savage State (L’état Sauvage) was a strange little outlier in the bunch. Rather than a horror or sci-fi tale, this is a stark, quiet, introspective western that gives the festival a new tone in how its telling stories through film, and the international overlap that many of these stories tell.
It also might just be the best film I’ve seen of the festival.
In St. Louis, Missouri, 1863, a French family, attempting to abide by Napoleon’s strict rule of neutrality in the American Civil War, find their lives changed permanently when the occupation of American soldiers in the city and new laws disrupt their ability to remain neutral in the aftermath. Because of this, the family must make the difficult decision to return to France with a long, arduous journey east across the harsh terrain before sailing to Paris. With the help of a French-speaking frontiersman, the family faces incredible hardship and danger when said frontiersman’s past catches up with him on the treacherous trail.
The prospect of a French-produced American Western was one that felt (pardon the pun) genuinely foreign to me. There’s a certain cadence to the tone and pacing of French cinema that goes against the slam-bang conventions of the American Western, but it’s something that comes together into a strange, but effective hybrid in Savage State. It’s a quietly introspective film about the bonds of family and the hardship of survival that doesn’t seek to shove its themes down your throat incessantly. It can be slow-moving, but this pace gives the film a ton of room to breathe and flesh out the tonal shifts taken at certain points in the plot.
Leading the cast in a rapturous performance is Alice Isaaz as the youngest daughter, Esther. Isaaz has a presence similar to Ana de Armas to where you’re floored by her striking eyes and the way she uses them to convey a range of emotion in and of itself, but there is a realistic balance of strength and weakness to her character that provides empowerment without taking her character out of the realm of relatability. Sure, the romance she builds with the frontiersman, Victor, portrayed by Kevin Janssens, might be a little out of place, but the chemistry built between the two leads is tangible.
Also filling in a wonderfully fun performance is Kate Moran as the film’s primary antagonist, Bettie. Victor’s former lover and now rival, there’s a big “Rebecca Ferguson in Doctor Sleep” vibe in her performance that gives way to a villain that is both deliciously vile and moderately sympathetic, especially come the film’s finale.
Things become a bit jarring when characters meant to be portraying Americans lack the proper cadence in their speaking, often sounding like French/Belgian actors doing their best impersonation of an American accent, which can take you out of the immersion of the whole thing when it’s extremely egregious, but this is merely a nitpick.
Simply put, Savage State is a visual treat. It’s intimate and atmospheric when it needs to be, but doesn’t fear opening itself up to an insurmountable level of scale that often is awe-inspiring. It’s one of the few films of the festival that I was genuinely sad I wasn’t able to see on the big screen. Shot by Christophe Duchange, Savage State skirts past its lower budget to create the world of the American Frontier that feels both grounded and dream-like, as if put through the soft haze of a distant memory. It’s all stunning to watch unfold.
But even better than its visuals is the film’s sound design, and more specifically, it’s absolutely jaw-dropping score from first time composer Sébastien Perrault. Seemingly inspired by ambient music of the 20th century, it’s something that weirdly sounds like a score to an entirely different film, but one that, against all odds, fits perfectly into the film here. Similar to the way that Hans Zimmer’s organ heavy score to Interstellar does not feel like a score to a large space film about the effects of time, this understated, but present, score does not feel fitting to a film of this degree, but I’m glad it does. It’s a stunning debut of a score that I would love to listen to while working, should they release a soundtrack for the film.
There comes a point in the film’s finale when things take a turn you truly do not expect it to, one that both makes sense, but is jarring nonetheless. However, this jarring narrative choice brings Savage State full circle in an ending so satisfying, I was nearly cheering from my excitement. It brings together a grounded, but incredibly unique little movie that shows that genres and film conventions can transcend borders, and create hybrid films that we never thought were possible before. A French Western sounds crazy on paper, but David Perrault’s story of survival on the trail brings the best of modern westerns with the prestige and regality associated with that of French cinema. With a savage bite and daring narrative choices, it becomes something that will stay with me for a long time.
Currently streaming during the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival.
For more information, head to the Savage State (L’état Sauvage) festival site.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.