When we think of coming-of-age tales, there are certain staples that come to mind: youth, love, introspection, heartbreak, and maybe a little absolution. Writer/director Pierre Creton (A Beautiful Summer (Le bel été)) disregards almost all of these in his recent project A Prince (Un prince), screening during New York Film Festival 2023. Using a methodology that’s specific to the interests of the characters, Creton’s story of love, sex, and aging’s slow-moving narrative often feels at a distance to its audience, kept there as if they are meant to observe, to study, and to consider academically and not emotionally. This results in a cinematic experience whose emphasis on tell-not-show prevents any kind of connection despite the thoughtful tale in front of us.
Unable to choose a career for himself and not wanting to fall in the footsteps of his parents, young Pierre-Joseph (Antoine Pirotte) enrolls in horticulture school run by Françoise Brown (Manon Schaap). While taking classes, Pierre-Joseph meets his teacher Alberto (Vincent Barré), with whom he engages in an affair, and, then, Adrien (Pierre Barray), whom he goes to work for and with whom he also has an affair. These relationships uplift the three men as they pursue their passions in the dirt and above it. However, it’s many years later when Pierre-Joseph finally meets Françoise’s adopted son Kutta (Chiman Dangi) that things come to a specific fruition.
It’s not uncommon for a narrative of any kind to include a voice-over element in order to either short-hand steps for the audience so that there’s less time wasted on on-boarding, because it’s part of the genre motif (frequent in noir), or just to generally get a sense of what our protagonist is thinking. For A Prince, voice-over is the primary method for the audience to learn anything about the characters and the actions that occur before us. It’s a fascinating choice as the film starts with us hearing Françoise’s voice (presumably) as she talks about her life, her journey to become a teacher, and the choice to adopt Kutta. Then, after the introduction of Pierre-Joseph, the voice-over transitions to him. It then swaps to other primary characters and back for the bulk of the film, with very few instances of the audience hearing the actual voices of characters speaking in front of us. At first, this choice is both bold and strange, foreign even, as it attempts to be more intimate by telling us what could be the deepest, most intimate thoughts of the characters. However, another interesting framing comes to mind, which is that of a documentary and the use of those methods to tell Pierre-Joseph’s story.
The first frame of footage in A Prince is a 4:3 nature shot with nothing but diegetic sound from the location. Then, with the introduction of characters and their interests revolving around botany, even going so far as to make a film exploring a specific region, one starts to realize that the technical approach Creton uses is akin to a nature documentary. This isn’t to suggest that Creton is symbolically reducing the characters to animals, so much as the approach of the narrative is about us observing key moments in Pierre-Joseph’s life with little emotional investment (on our part) as things happen. Life and death, sickness and health, these are all part of the life cycle and are treated (more or less) as such. Thereby, as people come into and out of Pierre-Joseph’s life, we neither relish in their joy nor note any pain in their tribulations: things just are. If the intention in the technical approach is to mimic that of an apathetic nature documentary, it absolutely succeeds in its goal. However, this also means that the audience struggles to ensure a continued interest in Pierre-Joseph’s life or those around him.
There are a few elements, aside from the ones mentioned above, that may be culturally specific and come across in odd ways from my region-specific view. Without getting too deeply into spoiler-territory for those who want to see the film untainted, that Pierre-Joseph and Kutta come to a first-time meeting as adults isn’t itself a problem in that there are many coming-of-age or romantic tales involving characters who hear of each other, but never meet until well into the story. What makes any kind of potential romantic entanglement strange at all is that Françoise, in introducing Pierre-Joseph to us, describes him as her first child and Kutta her second. Though we, the audience, see little interaction between Françoise and Pierre-Joseph, that she labels him so quickly as part of her family, makes any kind of romantic or otherwise element take on an awkward and inappropriate tinge. There are other things that occur within first to last frames that also incite some disquiet, but, again, that may be a regional/cultural difference. Otherwise, what’s lovely about the romantic relationships that Pierre-Joseph takes part in seem not only loving, but supportive in a way that is healthy for all involved. That part is worth celebrating, in terms of depiction, even if the rest leaves one a tad uncomfortable when giving it any kind of extended thought.
There are times at which distance from a subject is ideal. Films like Good Time (2017) get you right on in with Robert Pattison’s protagonist as things go from bad to exponentially worse and you’re right in it with him, enabling you to feel the constantly rising tension as he races to save his brother from a robbery gone wrong. You don’t want distance there, otherwise the stress of the situation won’t be as debilitating. Then there’s Nightmare Alley (2021) which, by no real fault of director Guillermo del Toro, puts an entire spectacle of magic, thrills, and threats before us, yet there’s something about the presentation that keeps an active arm out to separate itself from the audience, making it difficult to really immerse oneself in. Due to the observatory aspect of Creton’s A Prince, it’s nearly impossible to invest anything more than time in Pierre-Joseph, his sexual journey, or the ones with whom his path crosses.
Screening during New York Film Festival 2023.
For more information, head to the official NYFF 2023 A Prince “Un prince” webpage.
Final Score: 2.5 out of 5.
This piece was written during the SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.