Reach falls short of ambition in “Saint-Ex,” an intriguing attempt to create a cinematic tone-poem to legendary French flyer-cum-novelist Antoine de Saint-Exupery that only rarely gets both wheels off the ground. Despite some striking visuals and an evident desire to take a fresh look at the biopic genre, the movie remains strangely uninvolving for much of the time and isn’t helped by a miscast Bruno Ganz as the titular aviator. Theatrical prospects look fog-bound.
Alarm bells start ringing early on, as a pre-main title card announces that the pic is a work of the imagination inspired by the man’s life and does not feature any extracts from his works. Given that the female characters are constantly saying how inspiring his writings are, and one guy even describes him as “the Conrad of the air,” the decision to omit any examples would seem a perilous one. Even more disconcerting is the movie’s frequent inclusion of docu-like interviews with surviving friends and acquaintances. Just what kind of “work of the imagination” is this?
Film opens with a mystical shot of Saint-Exupery (Ganz) as he preps for a flight that, at the end, we learn will be his last, on July 31, 1944. A flashback to 1908, and his family manse in rural France, shows a young kid growing up in a seemingly well-to-do household where he catches the flying bug, and a fascination with aircraft, early on. Twenty years later, and he’s already a writer, in between daily risking his life delivering the mail in a biplane in North Africa.
For much of its early part, the film cuts back and forth between his childhood and his exploits as a flying postman, contrasting the warm, adulatory bosom of his family (with Eleanor Bron and Katrin Cartlidge in small roles as his mom and sister) with the spiritual release of cruising above the cloud base and communing with the stars. Latter sequences have an abstract quality that’s initially head-turning, with deliberately naive, Melies-like effects and a fecund, coloristic score by Barrington Pheloung.
A story of sorts kicks in with the appearance of the dusky Consuelo (Miranda Richardson), whom Saint-Ex meets in Argentina in 1931 and later marries. Rest of the film basically draws circles round this relationship, as Consuelo comes to resent his long absences in the air and Saint-Ex takes up with a less fiery, more supportive femme (Janet McTeer). A failed attempt to fly from Paris to Saigon that has Saint-Ex almost dying in the Sahara provides some passing drama.
With the power of Saint-Ex’s prose having to be taken on trust — and, in Ganz’s charmless perf, his attractiveness to women, too — a film that’s entirely pitched at a metaphysical level has two handicaps right from the start. Scripter Frank Cottrell Boyce and first-time feature director Anand Tucker also muddy the waters with the B&W docu testimonies, which add little to the “imagined” sections of the film and often just get in the way when the movie is developing a head of steam.
Equally problematic is the pic’s technical side. Though some of the effects are highly imaginative (on a clearly limited budget), and Pheloung’s score initially interesting, there’s a growing feeling of cramped vision as the film progresses. With no memorable themes to drive its coloristic washes, Pheloung’s music doesn’t grow with the story; and on the visual side, the movie’s imagination seems more and more boxed in by its non-widescreen, 35mm-blowup format.
Such technical quibbles might not have mattered if the characters had been more involving. In abstract settings, and generally brief scenes, thesps don’t get much chance to show their stripes, though McTeer is the most successful at creating a believable personality. Richardson looks as confused about her role as her Latino accent.