Revealed on the international scene with A fantastic woman, his sixth feature film which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2017, the Chilean Sebastián Lelio has since pursued his career in the United States. An evolution hitherto half-hearted, between a drama controlled but too wise (Disobedience) and a dispensable self-remake (Gloria BellAmerican proofreading of Gloria, released in 2013), which seems to have dampened the enthusiasm around the filmmaker. Like many directors attracted by Hollywood sirens, he seems too cramped in studio conventions that do not allow him to fully blossom and his new projects only generate relative excitement. It is on Netflix that he finds asylum by signing the adaptation of a novel by Emma Donoghue (author of Roomtransposed to the cinema in 2015) which he leads alongside Alice Birch, in pen on the series Succession as well as on the excellent and little-known The Young Lady, already with Florence Pugh. The British actress plays here Lib Wright, an English nurse called to the Irish countryside by a devout community to spend a fortnight at the bedside of one of their own, Anna O’Donnell (Kíla Lord Cassidy). The eleven-year-old girl claims to have eaten nothing for four months and to have miraculously survived by dint of prayers. In this religious society of the end of the 19th century, the search for truth of the down-to-earth young woman can only shake up morals.
The Wonder revolves entirely around the question of belief. Religious first of all, through the painting of this region of Ireland mired in a deadly obscurantism when it has just experienced the tragedy of the Great Famine. The weight of the Church echoes, by the director’s own admission, his very pious native Chile, who takes a dim view of the arrival of this woman who only approaches death from its most Cartesian side. A nurse back from the Crimean front, Lib, played by the always excellent Florence Pugh, will come up against dogmatic institutions run by men. A strong female figure who opposes societal shackles and recalls fond memories of the earlier films of Lelio, the trans heroine ofA fantastic womanto the fifty-year-old free from Gloriapassing by the two lovers struggling against the pressures of their Orthodox Jewish background in Disobedience. The film deals with faith as a magical thought capable of restoring hope (the United States or Australia, nations still under construction perceived as eldorados utopian) or serving to hide or even exorcise an abject truth under a veneer of fiction. Because the revelation of the story will not come from the trickery which underlies, or not, the miracle of Anna’s survival (Kíla Lord Cassidy, revelation to follow) but from the terrible secret that this affair serves to conceal. Everyone needs to believe, whether they like it or not. Each of the characters has their own superstitions, their childhood stories, their incantations, even their rituals (the laudanum-taking scenes rekindling the wounds of the protagonist’s past) which enable them to endure reality. This belief is also the one we place in the power of fiction, and a fortiori, cinema, which the director illustrates in a very beautiful way through the image of the thaumatrope. Under these conditions, why does Lelio choose not to trust his staging to immerse the viewer in his story, and opts for an introduction and a conclusion in the form of a mise en abyme? Admittedly, showing how this plot is timeless and could just as well happen today is commendable, but the use of an omniscient narrator (Niamh Algar, seen in the series Raised by Wolves) falls more within the gimmick contrived and hesitant, only real meta thinking.
This downside aside, The Wonder strikes by the evocative power of its images. Constantly bordering on the supernatural, a feeling reinforced by the anxiety-inducing soundtrack by Matthew Herbert (Lelio’s regular composer since A fantastic woman), the film turns into an allegorical ghost story, strongly inspired by Gothic literature. Oscillating between chiaroscuro interiors and misty landscapes evoking a no man’s land spectral, the photo of Ari Wegner multiplies the discreet but daring biases. The talented director of The Power of the Dog, The Young Lady Where In-Fabric, manages to materialize the disorder, by founding for example the silhouette of Anna reclining, in a chain of mountains which dominates the panorama crossed by Lib. A fleeting, almost imperceptible image, which further accentuates the feeling of a haunted, fantastic feature film. So how do you know where the dream begins and where reality ends? The two mingle, contaminate each other, upset the beliefs and certainties of each other. Discreet forward tracking shots isolate the characters, thus reinforcing the claustrophobia in this house lost in the middle of nowhere. Finally, the many solitary meal scenes end up linking the heroine to her young patient in a mirror effect. A duality which fascinates the filmmaker and which finds here, a superb illustration. Science and faith, Cartesianism and the imaginary, end up confronting each other until a final sequence where the borders are definitively blurred, letting the spectator choose what he prefers to see there, as the superfluous last implies. narrator’s monologue. If it is not free from faults, and if it would benefit from applying its profession of faith in the force of the myth, to its sole staging, The Wonder remains a formally superb and hypnotic feature film, which marks a certain return to grace for its author.
Available on Netflix since November 16.
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