Films set in the past make use of a great many techniques to emphasize not only their distance from the present, but also the infinite contestability that representing history gives rise to. Think of the heteroglossic nature of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s A City of Sadness, which discloses the experiences of Taiwanese citizens during the white terror period, or the papier-mâché masks of Niles Atallah’s Rey, a distancing effect that asserts the utter unknowability of the past. Or think of films that shatter the distinction between past and present: Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s History Lessons and Pedro Costa’s Horse Money, or more recent works that confuse temporal boundaries, such as Christian Petzold’s Transit, Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro and Pietro Marcello’s Martin Eden. These films, and many more besides them, confront the problem of what cinema can do with the history it takes as its subject.
Skies of Lebanon (Sous le ciel d’Alice), Chloé Mazlo’s debut feature, enters into this wide-ranging category of films. Mazlo begins near the end, in 1977: Alice (Alba Rohrwacher), a Swiss woman who moved to Beirut in the 1950s and made her life there, is on a boat, writing a letter. The film flows out from this frame-story: how Alice arrived, met her husband Joseph (Wajdi Mouawad) — an astrophysicist involved in Lebanon’s space program — and raised a family together. That is, until the eruption of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975, which destabilizes the country, and the lives of those closest to Alice. But if the framing device of a letter establishes one layer of narrative remove, Mazlo organises another: some sequences in Skies of Lebanon are stop-motion animated, and several scenes, especially those concerning Alice’s arrival in Beirut and Joseph’s stargazing, make use of painted backdrops. This is one way of representing the past: admitting that it is unrepresentable.
In Skies of Lebanon, the use of stop-motion itself is almost reserved only for things that are apart from Alice, or denote departure. Switzerland is rendered this way: the family she has left behind are figurines; whenever a journey takes place, the Mediterranean is shown as a flat surface across which a model boat or plane traverses. The painted backdrops, which feel slightly reminiscent of Rita Azevedo Gomes’ A Woman’s Revenge, are most frequently used during Alice’s immediate arrival in Beirut: to her European eyes, the city is made to be unreal, like splashes of color on a postcard. Later, the backdrops are used more sparingly in Skies of Lebanon, as for when Joseph and Alice stargaze together. Mazlo also chooses to dramatize the civil war in interludes featuring fighters wearing masks, and a peacekeeping figure dressed up as a cedar tree. Also of note are brief shots that show characters on television looking into the camera, no longer performing the roles demanded of them: they exist in a state of suspension like that of the country at large.
One lovely sequence in Skies of Lebanon applies stop-motion to the film’s human subjects: as Alice and Joseph marry, set-up their home, have children, make friends and initiate their life together, Hélène Louvart’s camera captures the sped-up but partial movements of the actors in cleanly symmetrical compositions and bright colors, nodding to the pop-up book aesthetics of Wes Anderson’s films. But Skies of Lebanon parks these techniques for the most part at the onset of the civil war. One possible reading is that Alice’s view of the country changes at this moment, and occasions a change of visual style; another, and one I’m closer to, is that the film gives up on its critical evocation of Lebanon’s recent past, and settles into a more standard representation of its setting. As Skies of Lebanon’s animated feel becomes less pronounced, it raises the question of the efficacy of these techniques in the context of historical films.
The blending of European models to Lebanese particulars is pointedly handled in Skies of Lebanon. Alice’s and Joseph’s daughter, during a recital of a piece by Johannes Brahms, accompanies it with a song about her generation’s political situation; a brief mention of Ulysses, as the answer to a crossword puzzle, is then completed when Joseph’s sister grieves the disappearance of her husband, taking to their ransacked flat to sit and weave, providing Skies of Lebanon with its own Penelope figure. Especially caustic is how the film positions its protagonist in this regard: Alice, the European in Lebanon, displays an almost comical naivete about the civil war, constantly announcing that the warring factions will soon realize their differences, and the family’s life will resume as normal.
Rohrwacher performs this obstinacy with slightly less command than she performs the character’s shyness in the earlier parts of Skies of Lebanon: her tentative glances and tight-lipped smiles are traded for a nearly permanent frown. But Alice’s lack of foresight does contrast productively with Joseph’s pessimism and paranoia, skillfully conveyed by Mouawad’s gestures of disavowal, his worry that his work with the space program (a subject covered cinematically in Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s documentary The Lebanese Rocket Society), which he seems to think is an escape from politics but is in reality deeply subject to it, will have to be abandoned. But Skies of Lebanon asks slightly too much of its actors; the switch-up from animation and deliberate artificiality to fine-grained historical drama demands a change in style that results in the performers having to pull in two directions at once, which stretches the material of the film’s latter half too thinly.