Vif-Argent (Burning Ghost) – French Film Festival 2019 – Film Review

Vif-Argent was one of the first films that I watched during the French Film Festival and I was truly intrigued by its premise. As such, it was certainly one of the films that I mentioned during my earlier article about 10 films to watch during the French Film Festival. Whilst there have been many supernatural love stories gracing the cinema screens, Ghost being a notable mention, Vif-Argent had added elements of suspense and realism to differentiate itself.

Essentially, the film unveils that concept of existing ghosts in purgatory that owe a duty to locate new souls and help them transition from their previous life on earth to the afterlife. Such debt is potentially owed until such time that it is exhausted, as decided by the decision makers in the sky. All of which seems similar to those mere mortals of us that work daily for remuneration until a given point, over which we may not have a lot of control. Juste, too, was mortal once upon a time but suffered from a fatal incident rendering him a ghost.

As a result, Juste wanders through quarters in Paris seeking others in areas that may be home to persons that feel disadvantaged and therefore may also be ‘invisible’ within society. The film lends itself to aspects of social realism during those scenes and there are easy parallels to draw in that sense. Effectively, Juste meets a soul during their final moments of life, which may be a concept previously explored in other films, but where Vif-Argent differs is in its sensitive depiction of some of the moments of confusion expressed by the recently deceased combined with some absolutely beautiful panoramic shots of Paris.

Vif-Argent was a winner of the prestigious Prix Jean Vigo and I can certainly understand why. The film is the second feature by director Stéphane Batut who provides the film with breathing space through its slow pacing. I was completely enthralled by the cinematography particularly as there were shots representing parts of Paris that I had not frequented previously but certainly had an urge to do so following this film.

Vif-Argent film poster
Vif-Argent film poster

The film allows the camera to linger on views of Paris thereby giving us sufficient time to absorb the film’s messages and beauty. There were vibrant markets with various communities witnessed, which evidenced an enormous level of passion and sentiment on display in the direction within Vif-Argent. These vibrant moments mean that as the audience, you may find yourself falling in love little by little with Batut’s vision and equally Juste by virtue of his conundrum and sense of helplessness. From the opening scenes we are presented with stunning panoramic views providing that romantic light and poetry which sets the tone from the outset.

The dynamics adjust slightly with the inclusion of a love interest for Juste, whom he may or may not have met earlier in his life. Vif-Argent never provides resolution on that point but we are privy to an enormous level of poetic, romantic cinematography during those stages. The intimacy between the couple is portrayed in such a sensual but tender manner that it seems that so much importance and emphasis is placed on that sense of touch that we take for granted.

The special effects employed within the film do an effective job at depicting such delicate moments. How much more desire and longing must one experience through the act of physically feeling someone after being deprived of such a basic sense of touch as a ghost? Fortunately, Vif-Argent eschews the stereotypical romantic tropes and avoids becoming predictable and cliched as a result but captures that longing extremely well.

Vif-Argent, explained Batut, during the Q&A, cleverly divides such intimate scenes between Juste and Agathe into two sections. There are close ups and the camera pans creating that intimacy however the angles presented are from both the male gaze and the female gaze. A different purpose is imbued within the two scenes underlining that human desperation to connect.

The film’s overarching message concerns that human connection, through relationships, and the underlying sense of isolation experienced in its absence. Juste by way of punishment, perhaps for falling in love, is made to suffer from a high degree of isolation and the cinematography portrays this brilliantly with long angle shots across the city where Juste is but a small person amongst the crowds and effectively anonymous in the big city as no-one can see or hear him. Thimotee Robart excels in his role as Juste providing a captivatingly nuanced and vulnerable performance. His expressive portrayal of Juste is remarkably impressive for an acting debut.

However, Vif-Argent is not a perfect film and so there are a few inconsistent moments, which are true of many supernatural films. Juste still seems to be able to touch doors and open them completely and enter other tangible places which would seem outside of the realm of possibility for a ghost but I may just be slightly pedantic on those points.

For the most part, I allowed myself to become carried away with Vif-Argent and its sweeping beauty, its haunting poetic imagery and that overwhelming sense of love, loss and loneliness underpinning the entire film. The film’s beautifully, evocative score will also teleport you to another zone to feel the film’s magic in its entirety. Plus, as a Francophile I will always enjoy a film set in Paris!

Equally, there are some mesmerising night-time shots which are so magical and add that additional dimension to the love story, with its layers of complications. The film does also raise those questions concerning the impact of our inaction on subsequent periods in our lives but it also serves as a love letter to Paris and so swept me away with its magic. The exploration of an impossible situation operates on a parallel plane as it captures that sense of injustice for those made to feel ‘invisible’ and marginalised within society as though they were in fact a ‘ghost’. Cleverly, the film also uses mirrors effectively to demonstrate that concept of the seen and unseen.

Vif-Argent highlights the importance of having memories as each of the new souls are asked to provide a memory and perhaps it is demonstrating that our memories are a source of strength and a driver in life. Vif-Argent will certainly draw you in to Juste’s predicament and will leave you breathless as an enjoyable but poignant watch until its surprising denouement. I would be keen to re-watch Vif-Argent once a UK release date has been confirmed.

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