Vet helmer Marion Hansel tackles big issues in compassionate ways, but like many of her previous works, “Ocean Black” lacks the kind of intensity needed to grab auds’ emotions. Set in 1972 on a French naval ship in the South Pacific, the pic revolves around young men just entering adulthood who take part in official nuclear tests. Inexpressible sensations are meant to be coursing through their sensitive, pretty heads, yet the unease is too unfocused and the tensions too weak for real insight. Minor fest play and Francophone theatrical will sail a short-lived course.
Hansel is at a distinct disadvantage, since many viewers are bound to make unfavorable comparisons between “Ocean Black” and the pics of Claire Denis: Attractive youths, bound by military conduct, are put in situations that push their physical and moral limits. But the feverish power of Denis’ films is lacking here, and Hansel has difficulty using shipboard boredom as a catalyst for anything.
Massina (Nicolas Robin) is a fresh-faced kid adjusting to life in the navy. He’s befriended by the soulful Moriaty (Adrien Jolivet), weighed down by an existential melancholy hinted at in the lovely flashback opening, when the child Moriaty had a crisis of faith in himself. The two generally keep apart from the other sailors, whose occasional spikes of testosterone, like a boxing match meant to relieve boredom, disgust their sensitive shipmate. Only chubby Mama’s boy Da Maggio (Romain David) wants to be part of Massina’s circle of two, though he’s never welcomed with the kind of warmth Massina reserves for the ship’s scene-stealing dog.
The nuclear test shakes the young men in various inchoate ways, compounding the usual turmoil quietly raging inside most impressionable 20-year-olds. But the mushroom cloud barely breaks the pic’s low-key surface, and Hansel steers completely clear of any homoerotic tension, preferring less definable sources for her characters’ psychic anguish. Dialogue is basic and largely unrevealing, which would be fine if pained glances provided more extra-textuality.
Perfs are strong, though there’s a sense that Robin and especially Jolivet could have given more with a better script. Midshots of the actors against an ink-black night make some scenes seem like a stage play positioned in front of a drop curtain, and while Corsica and Guadalupe are made into acceptable stand-ins for French Polynesia, the lensing rarely takes advantage of their natural beauty.