Certainly one of the most tranquil movies ever made about slave trading, Bernard Giraudeau’s “Les Caprices d’un Fleuve” somehow manages to be both lush and anemic at once. Beautifully photographed in the deserts of West Africa, this historical drama unfolds with the languor of a daydream as it recounts the tale of an exiled 18th-century French aristocrat and his slowly awakening love for a young slave girl. Despite sporadic scenes of violence — a duel here, a tribal war there — film seems far too gentle for American tastes, and its rather confused politics (sexual and otherwise) could be off-putting to domestic audiences.
Story begins with the duel, as young nobleman Jean-Francois de la Plaine (Giraudeau) emerges the victor but is exiled to serve as governor of a dusty African colony (the loser having been a friend of the king). A romantic soul with a passion for music and genteel living, Jean-Francois gradually and reluctantly falls under the mysterious charm of the African desert town, finding a kindred spirit in his aide de camp (Thierry Fremont) and a lusty sexual partner in a local widow (France Zobda), a beautiful mulatto who has made a fortune in slave trading.
The director clearly wants his audience to fall under the same sleepy sway as the main character, even as understatement gives way to tedium. Dramatic flow picks up a bitwhen Jean-Francois, having forged an alliance with a local chieftain, is given a 10-year-old slave girl as tribute. Captivated by her charm and intelligence, the Frenchman raises young Amelie as his daughter.
His relationship with the girl, which grows to be considerably more than fatherly over the course of five years, mirrors the cultural conflicts of colonialism. Although Jean-Francois maintains his long-distance affection for his French lover (Anna Galiena) and his sexual romps with the African widow, his deepest love is reserved for the girl, whom other officers treat as a servant. When Amelie and other slaves are stolen by a marauding tribe, Jean-Francois initiates a fierce desert battle to reclaim the now-15-year-old girl (Aissatou Sow).
That the other slaves seem to be an afterthought (or no thought) both to Jean-Francois and the film points up the problems with a movie that says one thing but shows another. Film espouses a vive la difference message regarding the disparate cultures, yet tribal life is given only surface attention. Similarly, despite Jean-Francois’ abolitionist lip service, the exceedingly complex and troubling dynamics of an intimate relationship between an adult white man and an adolescent black girl (master and slave, no less) goes largely unexplored. And while the film’s dialogue exalts the virtues of its female characters, the women themselves remain ciphers, one-dimensional fantasies (lusty widow, madonna-esque soulmate, nubile innocent) from a decidedly male perspective.
Subtly shaded performances are in keeping with the film’s vaguely melancholy tone. The narration that opens and closes the film (exactly who is speaking is only gradually revealed) lends a welcome sweetness.
Jean-Marie Dreujou’s camerawork provides a golden-hued grandeur to the desert locales, even if the picture’s luxuriant look contributes to the film’s glossed-over sense of reality. Slavery can’t have been this pretty.