Willem de Kooning, Untitled from Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, 1984


Comment on the Oscar-winning film directed by Chloé Zhao.

The saga of fifty-year-old Fern (Frances McDormand), who transforms her van into a rolling residence after her city literally disappears from the map, has the gift of uniting two things: a look at contemporary America, with its social, job and housing crisis , and a critical review of the mythology of exploration, of the incessant pursuit of freedom without fences or borders. By the way, three things, because there is also, and mainly, a reflection on the passage of time and its effects on individuals.

Who has seen Chloé Zhao's previous films (The songs my brother taught me e taming the destiny) knows how dear the Western landscape is to the director of Chinese origin, with its prairies, valleys, deserts, endless horizons. But it is a contemplation tinged with melancholy and supported by a critical view of the history that developed around these places.

In a crucial dialogue in which relatives question Fern's nomadic life, the protagonist's sister tries to sweeten the bitter pill a little: “What she does is no different from what the pioneers did. I think Fern is part of an American tradition.”

But the pioneers of two centuries ago were in search of a new world full of potential, they left in caravans to found the promised land, and the current legions of nomads in their vans, trailers and motor-homes no longer hope or dream of more. nothing, they just want to live one day after another, close to nature and far from the debts, violence and oppression of urban life. It is significant that these new nomads live in their cars. No job, no home, no money and no family, what was left was the car. It is the common denominator, America's ground zero.

Of course, this is a faulty generalization, but one based largely on the film's clipping. Most of the individuals Fern crosses her path are elderly or middle-aged, usually unemployed, retired or living on temporary jobs, like herself, who works as a packer, waitress, clerk, campsite caretaker, etc.

Contemporary and urgent themes, such as the precariousness of employment, the absence of a public pension and health system, housing difficulties and the oppressive power of banks are clearly present, but this does not seem to be the only or main motivation from the director. Her focus is on the characters, especially on the protagonist, of course, from whom the camera doesn't move away even for a moment.

Laconic, practical, firm, oscillating between hardness and affection, Fern carries the weight of years of battle, broken dreams, stones and losses along the way. Her face is an inventory of pain and, to a lesser extent, of joy. It's hard to imagine an actress more suited to the role than Frances McDormand.

In two of the rare moments in which she allows herself to let her guard down, the character lets Shakespeare speak for her: when she meets a girl who was her student and checks that she still remembers a powerful line from Macbeth (“Out, out, brief candle…”) and when he quotes from memory the famous sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?”) for a backpacker boy to transcribe in a letter to his girlfriend. In both cases, these are reflections on the brevity of life. All the effort of the protagonist is so that what was experienced is not lost, that it is preserved in memory. “What is remembered lives,” she says at one point.

The characters around her are equally rich in this density of lived existence, with emphasis on the lonely Swankie (Charlene Swankie), who at the age of 75, with a terminal illness, refuses to go to a hospital, preferring to continue on the road, seeking each day with nature moments of fullness like the ones he lived on a cliff by a lake, where hundreds of swallows made their nests. Life is beautiful for those who are passing through here – and who isn't?

There is a certain hippie community spirit revived by these veterans of the road and reinforced by the presence of a leader, Bob Wells (a real character playing his own part). With his long white beard and charismatic expression, Wells looks like a prophet or a guru, but a down-to-earth prophet or guru, with no promises of redemption and transcendence other than active brotherhood and everyday life.

It's significant that in the midst of these deserted roads, ghost towns, dusty camps and endless horizons, we suddenly see a gigantic Amazon warehouse, where Fern and dozens of other anonymous people mechanically pack thousands of products a day. It's like a Kafkaesque nightmare that sums up the alienation and dehumanization of post-industrial capitalism in our time. Remote consumption embodied in physical space.

Chloé Zhao has an acute perception of spaces and their meaning, both human and cosmic. The landscape – be it a desert, a mountain, a labyrinth of limestone rocks or a seaside cliff – is never a mere backdrop, but seems to interact with the characters' moods, speak to them, and by extension to us. also. A plan summarizes, in a way, your way of looking at nature. It is the one in which Fern contemplates the landscape through the hole in a stone given to her by her friend Dave (David Strathairn): the natural world framed by human gesture.

It is surprising that this girl came from the other side of the planet to rediscover America (its contradictions, its tragic and beautiful history) and reveal it to Americans themselves. But that was, no more, no less, what Chloé Zhao did.

*Jose Geraldo Couto is a film critic. Author, among other books, of André Breton (Brazilian).

Originally published on CINEMA BLOG


United States, 2020, 108 minutes.
Direction and screenplay: Chloé Zhao.
Cast: Frances McDormand, Patricia Grier, Gay DeForest, David Strathairn, Melissa Smith.

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