French director Clement Schneider casts ‘My Golden Days’ star Quentin Dolmaire as a monk during the French Revolution in this Cannes ACID premiere.
During the French Revolution, a young monk finds his quiet monastery in a verdant nook of the South of France overrun by soldiers and new ideas in A Violent Desire for Joy (Un desir violent de bonheur). Working in the tradition of Rohmer, Pasolini and Eugene Green, young filmmaker Clement Schneider, born in 1989, has created a film that’s less concerned with historical veracity and expensive re-enactments than it is with feelings and concepts compacted to a recognizable and human scale. Starring Quentin Dolmaire, the curly-haired breakout star from Arnaud Desplechin’s My Golden Days, as the holy man, and given a punk veneer by a soundtrack that includes cuts from seventies rebels such as Marianne Faithful and Patti Smith, this should find a welcome berth at the higher end of France’s arthouse market as well as in festival lineups abroad.
The film is set in 1792, when the French Revolution had finally reached the hinterlands down South as well. Brother Gabriel (Dolmaire), no longer a novice but but still quite young by the looks of him, lives in a monastery with a small group of monks in the countryside somewhere in Provence. Their main occupation is looking after the villagers nearby, especially when they need church services or medical attention, and tending to their olive grove.
Their tranquil pastoral life, filled with handiwork, study and prayer, is disturbed by the arrival of a group of soldiers who declare that the monastery walls belong to the Republic now. While Gabriel’s fellow men of the cloth quickly disappear from view, the young man is groomed for a new career, being made to switch from his coarse, dark-brown habit to the fancy, blue, white and red uniform of the newly arrived infantry. He also gets a new, patriotic name: François. While Gabriel wouldn’t hurt a fly — early on, he patiently explains to a stray cat he’s not into his offering of a dead mouse — François, now a sergeant, soon realizes that his new position comes with new responsibilities that might not be entirely suited to his nature. When he orders a Baron to be hauled into the monastery grounds after he has supposedly mistreated some locals, his army underlings promptly do so, though François didn’t expect these armed-to-the-teeth soldiers to kill the Baron before bringing him back.
Schneider wrote the screenplay with Chloe Chevalier and their slender feature, clocking in at a fleet 75 minutes, was originally developed as a subject for a short. This is obvious from the way some sequences are more logically embedded in the underlying structure while others feel more tangentially related. That said, the gentle rhythms of this tale — and it is indeed a tale more than a story — never feel like a bid to pad out a too-thin story to feature length, as it seems entirely appropriate for a film about a monk to quietly meander between a few highs and lows.
Of course, A Violent Desire for Joy is not, in the end, a story about one monk-turned-soldier’s specific experience during this time of socio-political upheaval in France. This becomes especially obvious with the introduction of a character conspicuously named Marianne (Grace Seri), an initially mute black woman who arrives with the soldiers but stays for Francois. The woman — probably a freed slave though she’s given no backstory — incarnates the exotic, alluring and different and, given her name, simultaneously embodies the French Revolution and Republican ideals. For a man of the cloth, of course the French Revolution is at once completely exotic yet alluring, because its principles both completely uproot established mores and history up until that moment and yet are also rational and egalitarian in ways that should appeal to a learned man of Christian values. It is thus no surprise that Gabriel/François falls for Marianne/the Revolution, leading to the unexpected yet completely logical sight of a former monk making love to a black woman in 1792 rural France, surrounded by that age-old symbol of peace: olive branches.
The fact that Schneider can explore relatively complex ideas — which involve casting off a former identity and its rules to absorb a new one for both an individual and a whole political system and country — with just a few actors is a testament to his filmmaking skills and creative talents. Indeed, the director doesn’t seem to need much more to explore intricate material than a few good actors, some props and a camera. A shot of a rifle with an olive branch, leaning against a windowsill, for example, says more than any elaborate speech about pacifism could ever say and does it more stoically and poetically as well.
The use of completely incongruous music both helps to tie the historical events to more recent times of upheaval — if not quite revolution — while also underlining that what we are watching is finally a completely artificial construct that’s more interested in ideas than it might be in delivering any kind of direct emotional high or relatable psychological journey. That said, Dolmaire is such an affable and warmhearted presence it is hard not to be touched by his violent desire for joy all the same.
Production company: Les Films d’Argile
Cast: Quentin Dolmaire, Grace Seri, Franc Bruneau, Vincent Cardona, Francis Leplay
Director: Clement Schneider
Screenplay: Chloe Chevalier, Clement Schneider
Producers: Alice Begon, Clement Schneider
Director of photography: Manuel Bolanos
Production designer: Samuel Charbonnot
Costume designer: Sophie Begon Fage
Editor: Anna Brunstein
Music: Joaquim Pavy
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (ACID)
In French, Provencal
No rating, 75 minutes