HUMAN FLOWERS OF FLESH Review: What the Sea Buries

Angeliki Papoulia stars; Helena Wittman directed a film that meditates on landscape as much as people.

Editor, Canada; Montréal, Canada (@bonnequin)
HUMAN FLOWERS OF FLESH Review: What the Sea Buries

One could argue whether cinema is primarily a visual medium, or if a narrative is of primary importance in a feature-length film. Being something akin to our dreams in how they are projections of both images and sounds in any we choose (baring limitations of editing and effects). Slow cinema, as it's often called, is perhaps not for everyone. But for those who do take enjoyment from this mode, be it the films of Andre Tarkovsky, Chantel Akerman, or Tsai Ming-Liang, there is something to be said about the nature of the mode that perhaps most accurately reflects that crossover of dreams and reality, the observation that comes from an interior solitude.

Humans Flowers of Flesh is German filmmaker Helena Wittman's second feature, and she is carving for herself a distinct engagement with slow cinema, one that intrigues as much as it meditates. It is a giant puzzle in which one is settled in the corner with a proverbial coffee or wine, and watching these characters' behaviours and thoughts unfurl through a light that fades in and out of reflection.

Ida (Angeliki Papoulia, Dogtooth, The Lobster) is the owner of a sailing yacht. What her purpose is to using or perhaps living on this boat is never clear, not are her means for possessing it. She and her crew of men sail to various points around the Mediterranean without much thought as to a destination, so it would seem. They take walks, they swim, they spend the evenings in seaside bars (and for the men, take care of the boat as necessary). They only converse when necessary. One day, while docked in the south of France, Ida becomes intriuged by memorials of the French Foreign Legion. Then it would seem she has a purpose: to learn more about them, both in France and in Algeria.

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What exactly Ida's attraction is to the French Foreign Legion is unclear; perhaps it is boredom, perhaps she is romanticizing an existence so wholly different from her own; perhaps she sees it as part of the landscape she is trying to fit together in her travels. Up to this point, her comportment and demenor have suggested a certain detachment from the world; being so long in the company of men yet still outside them, perhaps her only port of entry to understanding is through another male world, this time of the legion.

Certainly it's easy to see this as a kind of cousin to Beau Travail, an outsider coming to find out what happened years later. Like the group to which Ida is drawn, she and her crew come from different parts of Euorpe, with the only common language (if indeed they all speak it) being English, and which they are, not reluctant to speak, but they find the moments and words that matter, such as reading literature out loud (Marguerite Duras's novel The Sailor from Gibraltar) or some poetry, or languid conversations over wine in the occasional port stop.

Like Wittman's previous film, Human Flowers of Flesh meditates on landscape as much as people - or perhaps, as the title suggests, this is about these flesh flowers in the landscape, ones that find roots, and routes, in water. As they set sail across the Mediterranean, those roots seem to swim deeper into that sea, with their findings of shell and bone being catalogued, with one crew member's strange dreams of even stranger creatures haunting the screen. Wittman seems to be asking us to imagine ourselves in such as life, what one moment's fascination would mean for our journey should we have the means to take it.

Indeed, it seems that the more focused Ida becomes on a particular mention, the less focused the narrative - such as it is - becomes. But this seems to be deliberate. Perhaps Wittman is exploring what humans were meant to be on this earth, a different kind of endeavor and structure we could create if we has the means to sustain the necessities of life. Human Flowers of Flesh lulls the viewer into a kind of active meditation - the journey is slow, but with enough stimulae, enough musings with just the right dash of intensity and depth, and imagery that will find a corner of your mind for you to return to.

Human Flowers of Flesh, and other of Wittman's films, will screen at the Metrograph in New York, starting Friday, April 14th.

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Angeliki PapouliaFerhat MouhaliGustavo JahnHelena WittmannHuman Flowers of FleshMauro SoaresSteffen Danek

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