Mens (Isabelle Prim, 2019)
If the rest of Prim's work is anything like this unorthodox, singular, yet seriously committed film, Moullet's hyperbolic praise makes a lot of sense, especially coming from his own leanings toward the eccentric. It's challenging to talk about this movie, which imbues a Godardian eclectic approach to the relationship between history and storytelling using the tool of imagination masked as memory. The narrative strings are most reminiscent of Ruiz, as a young boy named Jean, in the present day, begins reading through his deceased grandmother's dated records from 1895 on a long car ride, and finds information on a police investigation involving the death of who may be his great-grandfather. He drifts into a dream and finds himself as a lead detective in the case, and the rest.. well, it's an entirely esoteric approach in the versatility of artistic expression used to convey a kaleidoscope of feelings and concepts. Prim's film is also a buddy-cop comedy, existential detective story, and surrealistic fantasy toying with narrative, time, and physics, though it's executed with a heavier weight than one might expect from that description, and even when being funny takes itself very seriously. Even the wildly anachronistic details exist as more of a fusion of realities to reach timeless truths than they do for any other comedic purpose.
Right away there are plenty of instances where we transcendentally acknowledge how small we are compared to vast landscapes, or the grand scheme of time, while also holding the competing truth that we are the central character in our own narratives. This film is, in part, about recapturing some sense of comprehension of the incomprehensible to forge our own realities and explore our worlds by proxy through fantasy. Just by making himself a character, the boy actualizes a desire to be omniscient. The way he follows the notes but takes breaks to playfully insert his own personality in a different era- such as a side bet to his police partner, “Do you think I can get the ball in the basket?” “Yes I believe in you.” Even more suggestive is a scene where his partner recounts his dream, which of course is all about Jean, the child dreamer. In the dream, he finds a theatre hall full of people where everyone is Jean, which itself explains a lot of this wish-fulfillment for ubiquity! Jean asserts his identity into the printed materials of his mind, and claims the joys of the possibilities in invention, whether film or creative daydreams. Though the consequence that he doesn’t get the ball in the basket when he throws it could draw further psychoanalytical ideas, which Prim has gone on record as implementing freely in her work. Sometimes Jean can successfully embrace this world, and at other times he falls short. This film is full of conflicts between two poles, each of which reveals greater colorization of the other.
Jean is constantly finding himself either immersed in, or at odds with, his environment; whether leaning into a woman to make her tangible by discovering her through physical intimacy, or fumbling with where his body is as he and other characters, mostly his partner in this investigation, awkwardly interrupt one another and lose control of the vision. The hold he has on his images isn’t even solid, which exposes a sobering deficit with humor, and also inversely celebrates the possibilities of imagination by mirroring the limitations. So many senses are used to attempt to attain the experience of this world. Sight (of course) but sound in music, and especially touch and smell, are meditated on frequently with eloquence that elicits a spiritual sensation. Prim’s camera will linger on a seemingly trivial object to pronounce it, and stress our protagonist’s freedom to 'perceive' as a gift that is invaluable and unique to the beholder, thus empowering the rest of us to dream and gaze a little harder in new places.
This is significantly a murder mystery story where a boy is trying to solve the unsolvable, but keeps getting distracted and musing on the more interesting elements of life that populate the crevices of such a narrow focus. Again, the dualities of the investigation and the peripheral exposure to infinite sublime helps color in the vast connotation of the latter. Jean gives himself the opportunity to be an adult, and valued as one, involved in adult-like action but with the attention span of a doe-eyed child seeing organic magic everywhere, even in the concocted spaces of his mind. When he trails off from the corporeal function at hand to a violinist playing arresting music, we enter a shadowy exhibition of the boy trying to follow the writing in the dark. In another similar scene, he leaves the plot-heavy room to bask in the breezy air on a balcony for an extended moment. In these scenes, he and we arrive at the truth; the meaning and possibilities of being alive in all shapes and forms, even the ones we didn’t know we could obtain. That these serene moments happen when the boy breaks from his one-track focus attempting to obtain a specific task tied to expectations is no mistake, nor is that the boy is investigating formulations that draw him back to placing responsibility onto women.
Through a continuous juxtaposition between detached factual delivery and fervent liberties taken to the material, Prim gives voices to the women blamed throughout history and humanizes them even in the face of male oppression, through complete fantasy. It’s a marvel when she gives life to the emotions through fabrication of cold facts in the scene where the women uncovers the body. Emotion, music, and visualized action editing frenzy together with solitude, completely pierces through the banality of atmosphere creating an entirely novel one, offering the woman an escape to dimly-lit frames that reality or words alone cannot do. This is done through breaking the principles of continuity editing in new ways, repurposing the self-reflexive nouvelle vague style to literally give this woman a moment of grace alone and apart from her accusers and abusers and hold onto it, before bringing us back to the scene. Prim actualizes the power of cinema to do this for the voiceless women through her protagonist, and by extension us. Women may be side characters here but are central to the story. The boy cannot believe them because they are enigmatic, inaccessible even in dreams. When he interviews a woman and then asks to speak to her brother, we acknowledge the issue that he disbelieves her testimony, but when he finds himself lured to the window to gaze at her through a barrier of glass, we can see the deeper polarization of push-and-pull magnetism that compels us to, and drives us from, the unknowable. His mission is doomed by searching for objective truth in assessing the opposite gender, let alone his blind spots in available information in the case files written in a manner that segregates the reader from sentiment, especially that of the women's points of view.
The ending confrontation with the image of his grandmother insinuates that a recontexualization of the way history is presented may reveal biases and inform perspectives today, just as ours can affect past records to derive new interpretations that advise our own beliefs. "Am I accused because I’m guilty or for what men say about me?” "Justice remains a hypothesis.” These poignant yet abstract lines brilliantly condemn a default of unconditional trust for any stance other than critical thinking and multisensory engagement with our or others' histories. We shape and are shaped by our relationship to the inconclusive, our search for tangible truths, and the revelations when we find it elsewhere, often in the ineffable beauty of trying to get there. The story fittingly ventures from murder mystery into love, that unattainable kind that drives us to compromise everything, and that could not be further from the detached specifics of case files into the universal specifics of empathy and connection. This brings us into timelessness, using the past to evoke feelings pervasive to our current time as much as any, and every, other.
This film is many things, but it's ultimately a life-affirming proclamation of how the past and present are intertwined by interest, passion, and willingness to make meaning and revitalize archival memories from others via our own distinct and special subjective lenses. It’s the process by which we draw our connections and rest in our imaginations that derives life’s greatest rewards, and Prim exercises the power of art to liberate and bind us at once, and emit a fluid pattern of disinhibition and sobriety to our greatest desires and discomforts together. I'll just stop now, because like a lot of the most complex cinema, this film induces an entirely innovative experience that utilizes familiar postmodern concepts through new experimental methods, and -like a defining motif of Mens- said experience is not adequately able to be grasped through the unidimensional medium of the written word, nor should it be.