Human Flowers of Flesh: a Mediterranean marvel

Though it might have probed a little deeper into the ambivalent implications of the French Foreign Legion, which features significantly in the film, Helena Wittmann’s daring second feature is a gorgeously immersive, fluid work of cinema.

8 August 2022

By James Lattimer

Human Flowers of Flesh (2022)
Sight and Sound
  • Reviewed at the 2022 Locarno Film Festival.

It makes perfect sense for Helena Wittmann’s Human Flowers of Flesh to premiere at Locarno: the festival’s languid lakeside setting is hardly a million miles away from the film’s woozy, watery wanderings across a summery Mediterranean. While the German director’s eagerly anticipated second feature paints on a wider canvas than her first and adds name actors in the form of Angeliki Papoulia and Denis Lavant, Wittmann gives the same priority to intimacy, atmosphere and texture as she did in her debut Drift (2017). Once again, the focus is less on following a conventional narrative than allowing all the swirling currents to take you, destination unclear.

Ida (Papoulia) lives on a yacht with a small multinational, multilingual crew of men, including Vlad (Vladimir Vulevic), Farouk (Ferhat Mouhali), Carlos (Gustavo Jahn) and Mauro (Mauro Soares). As a passer-by comments in one of the few, sparse dialogues scattered across the film, little is known about her, apart from the fact that she owns the boat and apparently leads a life in constant motion, fluid and free. The yacht is moored in various places in and around Marseille, where the crew drink at night, laze around and quietly prepare for the next sailing, while Ida hears a story about a legionnaire pulled from the sea and later walks past a Foreign Legion facility right by the coast, a communal song echoing over the fence, behind which unseen soldiers train. Ida’s fascination with the compound remains undimmed once the sea has been crossed, and the yacht drops anchor in Corsica, where another, equally impenetrable-seeming Foreign Legion outpost is located.

To try to describe Human Flowers of Flesh based on these loose brushstrokes of plot is to place an emphasis the film itself resists from the outset. Given the pointed lack of information provided about Ida’s background and motivations, to say nothing of her relationship with the crew members and the respective connections between them, these ‘characters’ are perhaps better grasped as external vessels placed within a specific space to sink into, absorb and digest that space’s moods, impressions and ideas: “people without place or land”, as the poem that Vlad reads to Mauro goes, unmoored from the needs of narrative. With this in mind, it’s no coincidence that when they are first seen in the film’s opening shots, Ida and three of the crew seem almost to have emerged from the landscape – bodies born of jagged rocks and scrubby vegetation who will later survey and be caressed by sun, water and wind alike, whether awake or asleep; the footage of microscopic water creatures or the blue cyanotype sequences that Wittmann edits into the film have the quality of a dream.

Although this oneirically meandering approach pays constant dividends in bringing the Mediterranean and the sensation of being in, on or around it to ravishing, sensorial life, certain limitations emerge when this approach is applied to the Foreign Legion, an organisation deeply rooted in the region, whose complex, deeply ambivalent set of meanings requires more probing than it receives here. While Wittmann’s attempts to encircle this relic of French military reach show typical intelligence – in the way this crew without a past or future comes to cannily mirror the Legion, in the idea of conjuring up the Legion’s heyday as a half-remembered dream, or in the references direct and otherwise to cinema’s best-known exploration of its daily routines in Claire Denis’s Beau travail (1999) – they create a hunger for deeper analysis or even resolution that remains at odds with the film’s minimalist approach to narrative. When Lavant duly appears in the role of Galoup from that earlier film, he is simply folded into the prevailing mood, where a greater degree of friction, to say nothing of fireworks, might have quickened the pulse.

There is considerable ambition and daring attached to sticking to your guns in such a way, however, and perhaps Wittmann is simply interested in capturing and refracting ambivalences in other folds of her glittering echo chamber. Either way, its 16mm imagery and the undulating, enveloping sound design by Nika Sound continually produce sequences at once hypnotic, suggestive and beautifully oblique: a spider enveloping a fly in the bright sunlight, a cleaning robot prowling the bottom of a swimming pool whose movements can’t scatter the shimmering reflection of the mountains above, a startling dive down to the long-submerged remains of what looks like some military apparatus of the past, layers of seaweed and lichen swaying on its surface. Such are the things to be discovered when you follow the flow.

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