Sounding a note of hope for the 20 titles selected for Locarno Festival’s highest-profile competition, The Films After Tomorrow, Helena Wittmann’s entry, the sensuous sea odyssey “Human Flowers of Flesh,” is scheduled to go into production on Aug. 12, with “Dogtooth” actor Angeliki Papoulia and “Holy Motors’” Denis Lavant attached to star.
The news gains particular force coming on the eve of a reimagined Locarno Festival in Switzerland, Europe’s biggest mid-summer movie event, whose Films After Tomorrow strand aims to prize and promote movies — 10 Swiss, 10 international — whose production was foreclosed or halted by the COVID-19 pandemic, as was the case with Wittmann’s second feature.
The producers of “Human Flowers of Flesh,” Germany’s Fünferfilm and France’s Tita Productions, had originally planned to location scout in Algeria’s Sidi-Bel-Abbes in March 2020 and then shoot a part of the movie in May, but all their plans were scuppered by the pandemic.
The movie, Wittmann’s follow-up to 2017 Venice Critics’ Week player “Drift,” will now shoot its first parts in Marseille, including scenes of the recreation center of the French Foreign Legion and scenes set on a sailing yacht, and in Corsica, Fünferfilm’s Julia Cöllen told Variety.
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Such scenes begin a movie that bucks many of the major obstacles halting shoots. It does not require any international star to travel from the U.S. nor, made on a contained budget, does it have huge crowd scenes or exposure in its first shoot to communities with inadequate healthcare.
That said, actor Mehdi Ramdani was unable to secure a travel permit to travel from his native Algeria to Marseille, so is being replaced, Cöllen noted.
In other ways, inspired in part by Claire Denis’ “Beau Travail,” which also starred Lavant, “Human Flowers of Flesh” also bucks conventional movie set-ups in its story, turning on Ida, a single woman of independent means in her late forties who explores the world on a sailing ship with no specific goal, accompanied by an all-male crew of five.
“It is an unusual constellation that undermines conventional hierarchies and patterns as it shatters the attributions of class, gender and responsibility,” Wittmann said in a director’s statement.
In Marseille, Ida happens across the recreation center of the French Foreign Legion, is fascinated by the legionnaires’ disciplined bodies and secrecy, and sets off to follow the traces of the Legion from Marseille to Corsica’s Calvi, home to the Legion’s parachute regiment, and then on to Sidi-Bel-Abbes in Algeria, site of the Legion’s headquarters until the country’s declaration of independence in 1962. There she meets a former Legionnaire, played by Lavant.
Best known for her performances in Yorgos Lanthimos’ Oscar-nominated “Dogtooth” and “The Lobster,” Greek theater actor Papoulia earned rave reviews for her lead turn in Syllas Tzoumerkas’s “Blast,” a Variety Karlovy Vary Critic’s Choice.
A standout in Denis’ “Beau Travail,” Lavant has acted in near all the films of France’s Leos Carax, climaxing in his near dozen roles in the surreal 2012 Cannes competition entry “Holy Motors.”
The film’s key cast will also take in Serbia’s Vladimir Vulevic, Portugal’s Mauro Soares, Germany’s Steffen Danek and Ingo Martens, Wittmann saying that she aims for an “international cast which results from the film’s subject.”
The sailing boat’s route will underscore the complex cultural, geopolitical and historical situation of the Mediterranean region, Wittmann says. “Human Flowers of Flesh,” however, is more “the story of a European utopia of a heterogeneous society [built] around a woman as a respected and respectful authority.”
In the sea, “every moment becomes a moment of transition from one state to the next, and boundaries become relative. Thinking with the sea ties up undreamt-of connections and dilutes supposed certainties,” Wittmann argued, noting that she’ll shoot “Human Flowers of Flesh” on film stock to allow, as Ida crosses from Corsica to Algeria, bacteria and mould to corrupt the film material.
A special edition, Locarno 2020: For the Future of Films runs Aug. 5-15.