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Rick McGrath [Celluloid 04.24.12] Belgium drama



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Blue Bird is like the pigeon the film uses as the central symbol: it’s pretty, but it doesn’t fly. It does, however, walk a lot.


This Blue Bird is director/writer Gust Van den Berghe’s second frame in his planned triptych that began with Little Baby Jesus of Flandr, in which he brought the little town of Bethlehem to Belgium. This time he takes Belgium to Togo, West Africa, and the little village of Tamberma. In Baby Jesus Van den Berghe achieved an otherworldly innocence by using actors with Down syndrome, and in Blue Bird he strives for the same effect using two young village kids, Bafiokadie Potey and his sister, Tene. Hey, the kids are all right, but basically because Van den Berghe doesn’t really ask them to “act”. In fact, as the music and dialogue are generally overlaid, one can easily imagine Van den Berghe on set with his megaphone, instructing the kid’s actions as the camera grinds.

Doesn’t matter. Acting isn’t the point of Blue Bird. The story is based on a 1908 stage play by Maurice Maeterlinck, a cloying, sentimental yarn about kids who seek the blue bird of happiness, only to discover it’s always been at home. Wizard of Oz, anyone? Van den Berghe doesn’t mess much with Maeterlinck’s version, though, and concentrates more on the flip side of the magical myth, which posits that a dead blue bird flips childish innocence into disillusionment, innocence is lost, and the young and naive transform into older and wiser beings. Not much new there, but this is a coming-of-age story like no other.

This inversion to the dark side brings Van den Berghe into more productive territory — sex and death — and that’s what we get, Tamberma-style, in Blue Bird. The action is simple: our two kids are playing with a pigeon in the morning. Mom calls them for a wash and when the kids obey, the bird wanders off. They decide to look for it, and this quest leads them through a number of fascinating set pieces where different magical or imaginary beings teach them the laws of life as it pertains to sex: “start to look for other birds, earthly birds, and they sing, and nobody can resist”, and death: “dead doesn’t mean we’re not here anymore, we’re always here as long as you think about us”, and life: “There are no winners. Only fate. Good luck”.

Unfortunately, these scenes are few in number and are spaced out between oft-interminable long shots or basically meaningless minutes of our kids walking through the scrub or along a road. As a drama, Blue Bird has the tension of a documentary. There’s no foreshadowing of events, and the events themselves are shot as they’re perceived by the kids. Which is literal and very uncomplicated. It meanders like a fairy tale, and it’s possible to get antsy for action even though the whole film is only 82 minutes long. I spent a lot of the long shots thinking of (a) the ways in which the bird is used as a symbol, and (b) just how far away I am from this culture yet how human our basic needs and desires are. And how unknowing kids are.

Technically, the film is quite interesting. Take the colour. Most of the film is shot thru a kind of lens filter that makes everything blue. For the whole film. Now, blue is an interesting, chilly cool colour, and an odd or interesting choice to use in a hot, beige landscape. I’m not sure what it means, but perhaps Van den Berghe wanted some kind of visual tie-in to the wintry snow of Little Baby Jesus of Flandr. Take the shape. Van den Berghe calls the ultra-wide 3:1 digi format he uses “uber-scope” and it’s like watching a movie on a band-aid. This overwhelming horizontality does dictate form, and often pushes Van den Berghe into the next country to get his shots. This distancing is interesting on some shots — the ones that pan — but often it just opens up a mile of scenery and we watch a truck or motorcycle take a minute or two to drive out of frame. There’s one scene however, where the effect is magical: Bafiokadie leaves his sister to look for the bird in tall, feathery grass that’s higher than he is. There’s a wind, and the grass truly waves and weaves like crashing surf as just the top of Bafiokadie’s head pops around. African gladiator. Or, perhaps Van den Berghe’s intentional use of colour and distance is designed to keep the viewer at some distance from the action, as if our adult presence might infect the kids with self-knowledge. It’s a thought.

Otherwise, Van den Berghe’s direction is artsy competent, blending the high-powered countryside with his low-powered talent. The story itself is simply innocence lost, but the African context certainly gives it a cultural boost, and the spiritual aspect is naturalistic and oddly secular, with the main lesson a rather existential warning that life owes us nothing. If it had just a bit more action and a tad more plot I’d recommend this more. It’ll be a nice rest from the usual veins in your teeth mayhem at fests, though, and I have a sneaking suspicion Blue Bird will go over well with women (who like kids).

One irony in this mostly un-ironic flick: the actors speak a language called Tamberma, and it has no word for “blue”. If they need to say blue, they use a word that literally translates as “the colour of the sky”.

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