Given the reportedly frequent use of puppets as aids to the therapeutic process, one might expect a family of third-generation puppeteers to be among the most well-adjusted people in the world. Or among the least, given the other connotation of puppetry, as a conduit for demonic, psychotic or otherwise malign energies. Sadly, neither is the case with the clan in Philippe Garrel’s “The Plough,” a featherweight folderol even by the director’s uneven recent standards, which seems mainly conceived as a cozy way for the veteran director to spend a little time reminding his real-life family how much they will miss him when he’s gone. It’s all about relationships but for anyone not surnamed Garrel, trying to find anything much to relate to in “The Plough” is a lonely furrow indeed.
Le Grand Chariot (the French name for the Big Dipper constellation, aka Ursa Major aka The Plough) is the puppet theater run by Simon (Aurélien Recoing) alongside his aspiring actor son Louis (Louis Garrel), dutiful daughter Martha (Esther Garrel) and activist daughter Léna (Léna Garrel). They are close, often literally: Together as a foursome, crammed in behind the little stage jostling to meet their cues, reciting their puppets’ lines in wacky voices, they have for years been mounting traditional hand-puppet shows for audiences of enraptured children. Apparently, there are still substantial numbers of kids who can be wholly absorbed by painted sticks in dresses squawking Latin puns at each other, even though Mario Kart exists.
Their rehearsals are sometimes observed by grandmother Gabrielle (Francine Bergé), who lives with them in the adjoining house, designs and repairs the wooden, costumed dolls, and whose husband, Simon’s father, was the OG puppetmaster in this peculiar family business. And while it’s not exactly a growth industry, the troupe is doing well enough to be able to offer a full-time position to Pieter (Damien Mongin), a painter friend of Louis’ who has been helping out backstage but can also perform, filling in for Simon when he finds it too physically demanding.
Pieter is smitten with temporary player Laura (Asma Messaoudene), and cheats on his pregnant partner Hélène (Mathilde Weil) with her. Not to worry! Louis takes one look at the spurned Hélène, and falls in love with her, which is quite the trade-up: The closest thing to against-type casting here is that, of the mop-headed BFF duo Louis and Pieter, for once it is Louis Garrel’s character who is the less punchable. In fact the Louis-Hélène courtship provides this shaggy, formless drama’s only real spark of warmth.
Simon dies suddenly, and in their grief, while pursuing outside career and romantic ambitions, his children struggle to keep Le Grand Chariot afloat. But simplicity of that description belies the film’s messiness: The female characters are woefully underdeveloped, while our investment in new father Pieter’s increasingly obnoxious, self-absorbed antics is sorely overestimated. Dialogue veers awkwardly between the banal and the poetic, with one window-shopping scene contrived solely for the faux-philosophical exchange: “What are you looking for?” “Nothing.” “What do you see?” “Everything.”
The approach to time might be alleged by some apologists to be avant-garde, but actually just feels haphazard and lurching; often it’s only the marker of Hélène’s baby that lets us know if days or months have elapsed between scenes. Well, that or an erratically placed voiceover, which otherwise exists solely to communicate honkingly obvious information (“Martha went to visit Louis” is rather redundant when the shot of them greeting each other and sitting at a table strongly implies her prior locomotion thither). This slip of a movie has four credited screenwriters (the late, revered Jean-Claude Carrière, Arlette Langmann, Garrel and Caroline Deruas Peano) and barely a single coherent thought.
The lack of any connective tissue between the puppet shows, segments of which are shown at some length and appear mostly to revolve around princesses worrying about whom to marry, and the romantic and professional entanglements of the human characters is just one more maddening missed opportunity. Similarly, a “Hamlet” motif, picked up on in a monologue rehearsal from Louis, who has left the troupe to tread the boards, and by Martha receiving a visitation from the rather self-centered ghost of her father, doesn’t add anything particularly edifying.
After a long, celebrated career of more than two dozen features that started back in the heyday of the French New Wave, Garrel is certainly well positioned to provide a crepuscular lament for the passing of old traditions, but “The Plough” is a disappointingly nichey, self-indulgent form for it to have taken. Then again, if the intention was to exclusively appeal to the diehard Garrelian while noodling about with the fam, idly wondering what it will be like after you’re gone, to quote wife-battering seaside roadshow staple Mr. Punch, that’s the way to do it.