The hope found in love is the only hope we have, or at least, that’s what Pietro Marcello‘s Scarlet (2023) seems to be saying. This French period piece is firmly rooted in the cynical positivity of the meta-modernist era. Everything and everyone sucks. So hold onto love as hard as you can.
Set after the end of World War I, the film opens with incredibly well-integrated archival footage from Armistice Day in the Bay of Somme, then introduces us to Raphaël Thiéry (The Passengers of the Night/Les Passagers de la nuit (2022), Amanda (2018)) as Raphaël, wandering through the remains of 20th century France in search of his wife. Coming upon the estate at which she last took refuge, Raphaël is informed that she has passed and that he’s a father.
Raphaël is a hard, worn man, hollowed out by war and grief with a craggy face that makes Ron Perlman look like a CeraVe model. All he has seen and lost has taken his hope, but in his daughter Juliet, he finds it once again.
Scarlet, loosely based on the 1923 novel Scarlet Sails by Soviet revolutionary Alexander Grin, follows Raphaël, Juliet, and Adeline (Noémie Lvovsky), the lady of the estate who gives them a place in her home. As Juliet grows up on the outskirts of a patriarchal and xenophobic village that belittles Raphaël for his foreignness and the death of his wife, the independence and magical practices of the woman Juliet is raised by brings only alienation and danger.
The film is a romantic drama that evokes the same melancholy of Myazaki’s films centered on post-war Japan, such as The Wind Rises (2013), Porco Roso (1992), and Howl’s Moving Castle (2004). Scarlet is not an animated film. It’s shot on 35mm to great effect. It’s not interested in magical realism as allegory like those Ghibli classics. Director Pietro Marcello (La bocca del lupo (2009), Martin Eden (2019)) does, however, capture the same generational melancholy and struggle for hope that Miyazaki, a child of that post-World War II era, did, and this comparison is relevant because Marcello didn’t grow up in the shadow of a great war. Scarlet’s cinematography, performances, score, and script are all very good, but the real draw is the tone. To conjure and maintain the tone of that un-lived experience so completely is a great feat of direction, and to do it in such a way as to draw a comparison to such a master, even more so.
There is a tired regret in Thiéry’s (The Passengers of the Night) performance as Raphaël that’s incredibly compelling, carrying multiple scenes of pure cinema with just his eyes or the weight of his shoulders. He’s probably the best performance in the film, though he’s challenged by first-time actress Juliette Juoan as a young adult Juliet, the actress’s many talents growing the film beyond the planned script with brief semi-improvised musical interludes in the second half of the film. Entering the film like a bolt of lightning, Juaon is an impressive new performer, conducting herself well as a lovestruck girl and a weary woman, her eyes, in particular, carrying that same heavy sadness of her father, even as the film shines light on her as the muse of youth and matriarchal succession. Great from the start, she only gets better once Louis Garrel (Little Women (2019), The Dreamers (2003)) enters the picture as her love interest, aviator Jean, who also shines. Their chemistry is good and their sexual chemistry in particular is believable, which is good since the film lets that chemistry do much of the heavy lifting in their story.
Scarlet is, as I mentioned earlier, filmed on 35mm film and it pairs well with the tone and structure of this grounded fable. Bathed in the soft film grain, often shot at dusk or dawn, Scarlet looks and feels like a half-remembered dream, which fits the story of a family who can’t quite wake up from the fog of a finished war.
It’s Marcello’s second time directing a scripted feature and sixth film overall, so it’s no surprise that this Italian filmmaker guides the film with a deft hand, even when working in French, and yet it’s still an impressive feat. Finding hope and love in the aftermath of the bleakest of tragedies, Scarlet is both of this moment and prescriptive, a fun romantic drama that also leaves one feeling seen and resigned. Life sucks, but at least there are loved (and great films) to be found.
In select theaters beginning June 3rd, 2023.
Detroit: opened in the US at the Detroit Institute of Arts June 3rd-4th, 2023.
New York: Playing at the IFC Center and Film at Lincoln Center June 9th-15th, 2023.
Los Angeles: Playing at Laemmle Theatres and Landmark Nuart Theatre June 23rd-29th, 2023.
North Carolina: Playing at A/perture Cinema July 7th-13th, 2023.
For more information, head to the official Kino Lorber Scarlet webpage.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.