Films that truly surprise are the rarest of the rare, and while “Sheep” also perplexes, its originality and intriguing docu-style approach make it impossible to dismiss as just another arty experiment. Debuting helmers Marianne Pistone and Gilles Deroo have crafted a prose poem on the randomness of life itself, at first focusing on a young man working as a prep chef and then, quite suddenly, introducing a freak event that changes the course of the picture and steers it down unexpected paths. “Sheep” should get a boost from Locarno’s tyro film award, heralding fest interest and deserved cult status.
Sheep, or rather Mouton, is the nickname of the main character, real name Aurelien (David Merabet). Pistone and Deroo (also co-editors) begin with minimal camera movements and a precise use of alternate angles, bringing an objective sense of rationality to the start as Mouton, 17, is granted legal independence from his alcoholic mother. He works as a prep chef at a seaside restaurant in the Norman town of Courseulles-sur-Mer, easily fitting in with the diligent kitchen staff.
An odd scene early on alerts viewers that this won’t be a straightforward tale, as a group of Mouton’s friends hold him down and good-naturedly spit on his face, perhaps as some fraternal rite of passage. Otherwise, a degree of normality prevails in this part of the pic, observing Mouton and his colleagues doing their work (cleaning fish, saucing plates) in a repetitious manner, lulling audiences into a feeling of familiarity and ease. Then Audrey (Audrey Clement) arrives as the new waitress and starts dating Mouton; the camera indulges in some handheld shakiness, followed by a zoom from out of left field as Mouton sucks her nipple during foreplay.
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Celebrations for the Feast of St. Anne get underway along the jetty, with townspeople behaving in an uninhibited matter reminiscent of unsettled villagers in early 1970s British films. During the late-night festivities, a man inexplicably cuts Mouton’s arm off with a chainsaw (discreetly filmed); he survives the attack but moves away to Picardy. At this point the film abruptly shifts focus and follows a few of the people within Mouton’s circle remaining in Courseulles-sur-Mer, such as twins (Emmanuel and Sebastien Legrand), kennel worker Mimi (Michael Mormentyn), and his wife, Louise (Cindy Dumont). They regret Mouton’s departure, but as is so often the case when people move away, promises to stay in touch are rarely kept.
Viewers will similarly be saddened by Mouton’s exit, even as they scratch their heads wondering where Pistone and Deroo are taking them. Yet much like life (not to mention ruminants), “Sheep” wanders down unanticipated paths, knocked off course by random acts. It’s a hard act to sustain on film, and the result certainly isn’t for everyone, but it delves beyond quirkiness to touch on the very capriciousness of existence. Events are inexplicable and perhaps free will is an illusion, making a cinema-verite style the sole means of restoring order to a messy world.
Shooting on 16mm, d.p. Eric Alirol, an early collaborator on Pistone and Deroo’s shorts, produces a satisfying graininess that harks back to an earlier generation of docu work in off-the-beaten-track places. Courseulles-sur-Mer may be a bustling town in the summer, but off-season, as seen here, it arouses a lonely melancholy that brings the few inhabitants even closer together.