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Manuel de Layet [Celluloid 04.06.16] France documentary art arthouse avant-garde

It's not often that a picture actually does rattle me to my core, genuinely fucks me up. Last time it happened was with Joshua Oppenheimer's The Look of Silence.This one is also a documentary, proving the effectiveness of the "cinéma du réel" and let me stress the word effectiveness: Forty eight hours in I'm still vaguely queasy and cannot wait to finish this piece so I can stop having to analyse the experience. Said experience being called Lightning: A Legend in Four Seasons and about lightning strikes, one must wonder why the result of seeing it is me wanting to curl up under a piece of furniture and die.

As the title implies the picture divides its four hours of running time into four parts named after the seasons: Autumn is interviews with survivors of lightning strikes, Winter stretches over the therapeutic uses of electrical shock, Spring will display a rare fungi that needs thunderbolts to bloom and Summer of course is about love at first sight, the famed "coup de foudre".

Sounds innocuous enough doesn't it?

Yet Autumn, the first part, is almost unbearable to watch, from the first image and sentences there's something not right. The symbolism is wrong, but just slightly enough to get me wondering again and again if it's my memory that's faulty or the movie, and then the storm starts. Deafening thunder and blinding light assaulting the senses. Past that introductory kaleidoscope of celestial violence distilled from archive images begin the ordeals.

Shot Belgian style (If you do not know what this means I urge you to get acquainted with the works of Jean Libon and Marco Lamensch) with what must be the most awkward SFX this side of After Effects we discover the five survivors. Each will tell his or her story, slowly, again and again and again, until all you can think about is leaving this unfathomable mess of barely literate people milking their trauma, what empathy or kindness you might have initially had toward them turning into contempt and disgust, anger directed toward them and most of all yourself for the self inflicted mess you're in.

The slowness and repetition of it purposely wearing away your humanity, like water eroding stone or, to stay in the seasonal field of semantics, leaves falling off a dying tree. And as the last leaf hit the ground comes Winter.

You will spend the season amongst the living dead, literally, and that segment manages on its rather short course to turn you into an empty husk. A stellar void sucking everything out, leaving only a barren wasteland. A stony rubbish devoid of the roots that clutch and where no branches grow. Emptiness as a goal and a curse is the core of this segment. A Goal, in Guinea Bissau, and with the dervishes, as they ritually short-circuit their brains in search of a communion with something immaterial, a Curse with melancholia suffering patients being, in Shelley-esque gothic-horror fashion, raised from the dead with electricity.

There is something utterly terrorising in seeing electroshocks still being a tool in the medical apparatus yet the dead eyes of the five afflicted, caught in the grip of some twisted ataraxia are contagious, dulling the horror into an ineluctable and almost unspeakable ennui. Sparks of brightness often appear, a quicksilver flash soon to be grayed out, traces of the mania that is life, a tenuous light at the end of the pier.

From that mote of brightness will Spring sweep by. A breath of fresh air, the shortest part, a mere half hour should have been a lighter load, even with its themes of isolation and mystical delusion, mixed with the creation of value and meaning out of nothingness that is the fungal blossom. Sadly there's now a towering behemoth overshadowing the intended effect and distorting everything, these are some of the last images of Palmyre before its destruction. I won't dwell on it lest you see how creative I can be when it comes to profanity, so onward we go into Summer.

The last under the cover of love surveys how the lies of mind overlap the truth of the body. Using a famous piece from Marivaux to eloquently recount the elation of falling in love, and hard cold science to nip it in the bud. It's almost vicious in it's development, in the inevitable dwindling of that fragile chemical bond, that impermanence, the cold indifference of the universe waiting for our atoms to be returned to him. For the joy and pleasure will only last seconds until they start to fade in the worst way possible: Unilaterally. The adoration and passion no longer shared nor returned turning sour, spiralling into violence and despair. Amusingly, the male lover undergoing this particular ordeal is the only actor.

Tying all the disparate parts spanning centuries and half the globe is the use of the omnipresence of the characters, in each part will some protagonists of the previous one be more or less always on screen. In the background, as part of a crowd, in odd places but there. Always there. Like recurrent thoughts you can't either ignore or shake off.. Basically like demons preying on your soul, each and every one bringing forward a brief flash of his/her trauma.

Of course, this being a rather epic saga, a legend in the initial meaning of the term, I cannot do more than broadly sweeping through what I thought was of particular interest. This may sound chaotic when laid out as a words on a computer screen, but there is method to this madness. I do regularly speak about how in film-making everything must make sense, and that the last image must explain the first. This piece is a textbook illustration of the concepts. From the unnecessary mundane details spewed by the protagonists during it's course to the last comma of the credit roll, each and every mote of light flickering in front your eyes has meaning, and is there for a reason.

There something about mental health that can never quite be conveyed by words, a wall of incommunicability between those suffering and the rest of the world, however eloquent you can be the unaffected party will never feel or experience what you are going through. Until now. Something that I wouldn't have thought possible but I did worship Saturn enough decades to recognize this picture for what it is : a depression simulator.

Actually, it might be the most accurate tool to spread mental health awareness ever devised.

All the grand talks about Art and it's power to change lives are for once rather relevant.

Of course there's a fly in that ointment, the availability. If you want to experience it on a big screen your next opportunity will be on the summer solstice in Marseilles. Outside of the festival circuit it is for now only shown once per season.

You can of course buy a physical support on the official website, that way you can get relatives and friends to see it, in a "playing the blues" way, the whole "it's about making other people feel WORSE ". Yet I do firmly believe it should be screened in a loop, continuously for a week, a never ending cycle while people come and go in the theatre at their leisure... I'll pitch the idea it to Shia Labeouf, might be something he'll be able to make happen.

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