Saying that an art house narrative feature has a “vérité” style means comparatively little these days. It seems as if every festival-bound European drama is shot like an observational documentary, simultaneously removing all stylistic excess while subtly drawing our attention to the presence of the camera. In a post-Dogme 95 world, replete with Dardennes, this has become almost a norm on the festival circuit. There is great beauty to be found in this unadorned approach to life, but it can also be something of a stylistic dead end.
Enter Mouton, a wise and surprisingly flexible film that re-frames the way “reality” figures into what we might otherwise consider “fiction” cinema. It is the story of Aurelien (David Mérabet), a fictional young man who mostly goes by “Mouton” (Sheep). The film opens with a deliberately stiff scene in a law office, where his alcoholic mother is told definitively that the French justice system does not consider her fit to raise her son. Then directors Gilles Deroo and Marianne Pistone leave this family drama behind and follow the teenage Mouton on his slow, quiet journey into adulthood.
He works as a sous chef in a seafood restaurant in Courseulles-sur-Mer, a small town on the coast of Normandy. He and his coworkers unload trucks full of fish and then playfully toss them around before cleaning and cooking them, notes of quiet joy. A romance blossoms with a new waitress, a love affair of warm silences and juvenile hesitation. All throughout the style remains naturalistic, speckled by occasional flirtations with the natural world. Mouton’s own sexual experiences align him with the sort of empathetic filmmaking we have come to expect from documentaries about livestock. An extended close-up on his mouth as it encounters his girlfriend’s breast for the first time is simultaneously erotic and pastoral.
And then it all breaks open. Just over halfway through the film, Mouton departs from Courseulles-sur-Mer due to an entirely unexpected (and trickily filmed) incident. Part II is entitled “They Live the Rest of Their Lives.” Deroo and Pistone follow previously secondary characters around this quiet seaside town. The humble, naturalistic fabric of the previous hour is replaced by a fractious pastiche of devices. This would seem erratic were it not so brilliant. Voiceover is used, the thoughts of one friend of Mouton who has not written to him in some time. There are intertitles, one of which even evokes the Bayeux Tapestry, depicting the film’s central incident as a thousand-year-old myth. When a friend leaves town the initial moment is sad, but as time goes by and contact is lost, it can feel as distant as the Middle Ages.
Simultaneously, the final act of Mouton features scenes that seem proudly real. Deroo and Pistone feature an annual religious festival held in Courseulles-sur-Mer, during which the whole town comes together for a Catholic ritual right by the water. Like everything else, this highlights the loss of Mouton by calling attention to the continuity of the community he left. But by using specifically documentary footage, the directors allow the audience to think on the young man’s absence without any stylized prodding.
The formal innovation of the second half of Mouton is therefore neither its nonfiction images nor the intrusion of voiceover and intertitle, but the combination of the two. It is a film both vérité and contrived, somewhere between reality and fiction. Mouton’s relocation to another town, followed by the illustration of a totally real Courseulles-sur-Mer, frees him from the constricted imagination of fictional cinema. Without much in the way of stylistic fanfare, Deroo and Pistone have further opened a door into a brave new world.