Originally published on Ink 19 on April 13, 2023
Human Flowers of Flesh
directed by Helena Wittmann
We understand and appreciate the allure of the French Foreign Legion, which beguiles Ida (Angeliki Papoulia of Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth and Alps fame), the protagonist in Human Flowers of Flesh, Helena Wittmann’s followup to her esteemed 2017 debut feature, Drift. At some point in our lives, quite often when we were young, many of us have encountered one of the cinematic adaptations of P. C. Wren’s novel, Beau Geste, the harrowing story of three orphaned upper class English brothers who independently join the Legion.
For us, it was William A. Wellman’s 1939 treatment of Beau Geste, which starred Gary Cooper, Ray Milland, and Robert Preston, that propelled our curiosity towards this legendary corp of the French Army, one that possesses the rare and magical combination of elite skill, international membership, and the ability to dissolve all records of one’s given name and potentially felonious past upon entering its ranks. Regardless of the film’s tragic end, the initial thought that such men of means would readily surrender the life of comfort that they have always known for service to a foreign flag in a desperate outpost added to our fascination.
For Human Flowers’ Ida, the common presence of the Legionnaires in Marseille ignites her interest in the mystique of the Legion. The members sing heartily in the distance, broadcasting their purpose and origin to all nearby, and the stories of their legendary organization flow in and out of the conversations of the port city. Intrigued by these enigmatic men, Ida charts an exploratory course in the Mediterranean in pursuit of the spirit, myth, and legacy of the Legion. She helms her ship for the journey and leads an all-male crew consisting of Mauro (Mauro Soares), Farouk (Ferhat Mouhali), Carlos (Gustavo Jahn), and Vladimir (Vladimir Vulevic), who, like Legionnaires themselves, all hail from different countries but are united in a mission. They sail from the contemporary headquarters of the Legion in Marseille via Corsica to the corp’s original headquarters in the Algerian town of Sidi Bel Abbès, where the Geste brothers of Wren’s novel trained, before two of the brothers are dispatched to the fort that would be the site of their end.
The notions that may have split our foreign crew — including any hesitation to follow a female commander — dissipate into the flow of the landscapes around them as they pursue the lore and truths of the Legion, despite the fact that they appear to be traveling aimlessly in a leisurely fashion. As our collection of voyagers symbolically navigates the destinations that once saw a powerful presence of the Legion fervently defending the colonial outreaches of France, we see on the boat a melding of the physical and metaphysical that not only mirrors the breakdown of cultures that occurs through the militaristic fraternity in the Legion, but also the dissolution of all human tensions and constructs by the prehistoric and magnificent sea.
All items on the boat and those brought in from ashore experience the breakdown and transformation of physical objects by human manipulation or interpretation, from the microscopic research of marine life to the subsequent transformation of surroundings into words, epitomized by the hand-processed cyanotype images of the crew reaching a night’s close in the ship’s cabin. When Wittmann, who served not only as the director but also as the cinematographer of Human Flowers of Flesh, takes us into the depths of the Mediterranean to observe the living things flourishing within and around the wreckage of a plane, we better understand its everlasting, simultaneous power to destroy and sustain life while also preserving moments across all time in its waters.
Surrounded by the fundamental nature of the sea, the languages spoken by our sailors detach from their original structures and interweave into each other and into an unspoken, basic language we can sense but not hear. To this end, Wittmann occasionally avoids translating the languages used by our sailors, but this never hinders their communication with each other or us. In fact, in the loss of their semantic purpose, the untranslated words become a part of the sonic texture of the ship and sea that Wittmann and her composer/sound designer Nika Son invite us to absorb. As a result, the people on board and the environment around them come together into a fluid experience that merges the motion of the excursion with ideas that seem to be coming from Ida’s mind alongside the unseen but sensible histories of the sea and the nearby lands.
When we finally reach Sidi Bel Abbès, the destination of the crew’s journey, we see the familiar face of Denis Lavant reprising his role as the Legionnaire Galoup from Beau Travail, Claire Denis’ masterful 1999 adaptation of Melville’s Billy Budd, a novella that perfectly captures the dysfunctional family dynamic transplanted into the form of sailors at sea. In these final moments of Human Flowers of the Flesh, a symbiotic coupling of two characters, Ida and Galoup, who keep their verbal interactions to a minimum, but in their respective presences in the shared space of Galoup’s apartment, evoke a filmic Legionnaire inspiration for Wittmann that prompted her to seek the the history of colonial expansion and the search for adventure, new beginnings, and brotherhood behind the intrigue of the Legion and find the primordial, transformative, and hypnotic forces of the sea and its ability to render us down to our most elemental selves.
Human Flowers of Flesh opens at The Metrograph in NYC this Friday, April 14, 2023.
Featured photo courtesy of Cinema Guild.
Generoso and Lily Fierro