Vague Visages’ Astrakan review contains minor spoilers. David Depesseville’s 2022 movie features Mirko Giannini, Jehnny Beth and Bastien Bouillon. Check out the VV home page for more film reviews, along with cast/character summaries, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings.
Troubled children are prevalent in Hollywood, so major kudos to French filmmaker David Depesseville for finding a new twist on a well-trodden idea that evokes feelings of wonder and detachment for young engenders. His complex protagonist, Samuel (Mirko Giannini, underplaying it to an exquisite degree), is clearly a bit off. The local adults refer to him as “the new boy,” casually describing the youth as “the hardest” one to deal with, “possessed” and even “nuts” — typically within earshot. There’s little regard for the boy’s feelings, but Depesseville — who co-wrote the script with Clara Bourreau — doesn’t portray Samuel as a saint.
Astrakan’s protagonist consistently soils his pants because of some undisclosed prior trauma, but even in the foster home where he’s supposedly safe, Samuel knows better than to trust those around him too much. He’s a quiet kid, very observant, meaning that he sees and hears more than anyone realizes. For instance, Samuel picks up early on that Luc (Théo Costa-Marini), his foster mom’s brother, is abusing his older male sibling after seeing the two going into the back of a van together. Later, when Giannini’s character is forced to share a bed with his uncle, the traumatized kid’s discomfort chafes against his desire to find some semblance of comfort in a world that, up until now, hasn’t exactly treated him kindly.
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Luc is a relatively young, cool and good-looking man, which defies the well-trodden stereotype of the leering, creepy uncle preying on unsuspecting kids. It also plays into Depesseville’s desire to present opposing ideas and images that force viewers to question their beliefs about other people. Astrakan’s cinematography (courtesy of Simon Beaufils) is hazy, capturing the feeling of endless summers experienced as a kid, even in the snow. The juxtaposition between the idyllic setting — which is so bucolic that Astrakan initially feels like a period piece until Samuel hands over a Euro note to pay for the cinema while his friend whips out a smartphone — and Samuel’s roiling inner turmoil is stark and frequently jarring.
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Unfortunately, Astrakan keeps audiences at a little bit too much of a distance, much like Samuel. A sermon from the local parish priest about what it means to be a good person, coupled with the near constant warnings from the protagonist’s foster parents to not embarrass them in front of the neighbors, suggest that Depesseville’s primary concern is the grey area that exists within most human beings. His protagonist isn’t a bad kid necessarily, but Samuel doesn’t help himself either, from stealing from his foster mom’s purse to causing fights with local hoodlums. A brief dalliance with neighbor Hélène (Lorine Delin) hints at the hidden depths within the boy, especially when she tells him, “When you smile, I see who you are.” However, Hélène hides secrets too; although she’s consistently dressed in floor-skimming, virginal white when out in public, the female character has a darker side just like everyone else.
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Astrakan effectively builds the tension up until the point where it’s unclear whether Samuel is going to grow up to be a school shooter or, in stark contrast, a strident truth-teller who forces wrongdoers to face up to their misdeeds. Ultimately, though, it feels like Depesseville was unsure how to tie it all together satisfyingly, or how to put a period at the end of a story that’s not quite finished yet. As a result, he devalues what’s come before in favor of a misguided grasp at unearned depth — complete with a classical score, to boot — that’s both confusing and unnecessary. The music builds to a crescendo while the action itself kind of tapers off. Perhaps the point was to put viewers in Samuel’s uncertain shoes, but Astrakan is most intriguing when not trying to explain everything away.
Astrakan released theatrically and digitally on September 1, 2023 via Altered Innocence.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.
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