The traveling theater troupe depicted in the colorful French drama “Ogres” idolizes the breaking down of conventional boundaries, presenting Chekhov in cabaret format nightly in different locations. Their compulsive worship of freedom above all else also applies to their personal lives: Messy intergenerational entanglements are what drive sophomore helmer Lea Fehner’s character study of this loose band of free spirits. A leisurely running time and limited international name appeal — the presence of rising star Adele Haenel notwithstanding — may make the film a moderately tough sell outside of France, but an audience award at Rotterdam signals that this is an absorbing and accessible watch; domestic prospects seem rosy.
“Ogres” is a family affair in more ways than one. Starring Fehner’s real-life mother, father and sister alongside half a dozen actors of mixed experience, it is about families both biological and circumstantial. Interrogating the tightly knit bonds that both cradle and trap this gypsy-esque theatrical company, Fehner creates a naturalistic impression of life on the road. The plot, such as it is, is a simple one. The company travels from place to place, dealing with any obstacles that arise: The show must go on, after all. That any impediments are almost always self-generated doesn’t seem to matter. The troupe runs on its own combustible energy, and a quiet life would be boring.
The pic is undoubtedly an ensemble piece, but Haenel — at 27, already a two-time Cesar winner — is especially affecting and plausible as Mona, one of the younger adults, pregnant by M. Deloyal (Marc Barbe), a circus ringmaster of sorts. Haenel communicates with precision the tough naivete that helps us understand why she might have been attracted to Deloyal’s binge-drinking, troublemaking ways in the first place — but also why she is, despite his issues, subsequently able to stick around.
As the casting of her family suggests, Fehner drew from her own life experience in conceiving the project, having grown up in a similar milieu in the 1990s. This is likely the reason that the community’s youngest children, while confined to the margins of the narrative, also provide some of the film’s best incidental moments: running wild around the camp, dressing up in theatrical paraphernalia, occasionally stealing from customers and otherwise getting into unsupervised scrapes.
The hectic claustrophobia of the troupe is sometimes a grating experience, and these group histrionics are surely faithful to their real-world source. To Fehner’s credit, the pic is at pains not to let these often monstrously immature “ogres” off the hook, nor to overly romanticize their way of life — which, while largely free from the soul-crushing strictures of the mortgages or pensions they disdain, often takes the form of an arrested childhood, preserved via immersion in alcohol. At times, it’s all in danger of veering into soap-opera territory.
Still, when it works, it really works. One electrifying scene sees dejected wife Marion (Marion Bouvarel) brokenly bemoan the infidelities of her husband, Francois (Francois Fehner), only for him to round on her and suggest she should have an affair. Picking up the baton, Deloyal begins a kind of impromptu auction: Who will pay for this woman, and how much? On the surface, it’s a cruel gesture, but the evening of spontaneity that ensues proves this is a film that can practice what it preaches. Where independent cinema sometimes conceals a rather puritanical attitude to sexual freedom where women are concerned, “Ogres” is the genuine article.
Co-scripter Brigitte Sy is better known for her onscreen work (including roles in four Philippe Garrel films), and perhaps helped bring an actor’s perspective to the screenplay. Certainly, this is a film that gives almost every member of the ensemble the emotional highs and lows that performers covet. Also on scripting duties with Fehner and Sy is Catherine Paille, who previously partnered with Fehner on her debut feature, “Silent Voice.” The three-way writing credit further suggests a film guided by fruitful collaboration rather than the singularity of vision that can, for better or worse, dominate more classically hierarchical auteur cinema.
Even tech roles are replete with insiders: The editing is by Fehner’s husband, Julien Chigot, who establishes an easy, seasonal rhythm in the life of the gang. D.p. Julien Poupard’s widescreen lensing similarly takes in the show with appropriately wide-eyed wonder.
Taking an audience award at Rotterdam handily guarantees the film Dutch distribution: “Ogres” is a worthy recipient of this resource, the kind of film audiences will enjoy, assuming they can be persuaded into the theater in the first place. If other international distribs can show the same kind of hustle the troupe does — in one scene, they litter the streets with fliers, demonstrating in miniature the charms that await in the big top — they could enjoy the kind of word-of-mouth success for which the film’s characters would gladly give their front teeth.