Savage State is a western in French. Just that fact makes this film, also known as L’état sauvage, unusual and worth a watch. Is that enough though? Not quite, but as with Frenchness so with the rest of its many idiosyncrasies. This is a strangely bland film packed with unusual and often pungent elements.
The setting for one. We’re in the teeth of the American Civil War, but rather than being on one side or another we’re with the neutrals, the French settlers ordered from afar by Napoleon III to take no part in the conflict.
Early scenes establish a frontier setting of double-cross and gunfights, contraband and big characters, in particular the extravagantly sexual Bettie (Kate Moran), a minx with a gun and a fuck-me smirk and the glad-eye for Victor (Kevin Janssens), a man’s-gotta-do operator working all the borders – legal and illegal, Union and Confederate, French and English language.
He’ll figure later on, but in the meantime we bounce off to the family of wealthy French trader Edmond (Bruno Todeschini), wife Madeleine (Constance Dollé), their three daughters, plus Layla (Armelie Abibou), the headstrong freed slave carrying on a poorly hidden relationship with Edmond while acting as a servant for the household.
The film’s best scenes happen here, early on, when the western rubs up against a genteel almost Jane Austen world – those three daughters – with Layla’s low-level practice of voodoo adding to the genre gumbo. Things come to a head at a ball hosted by the town’s rich doyenne, Miss Davis, who has just finished singing hideously (Lee Delong giving it the full Florence Foster Jenkins) when a rabble of lairy Union soldiers invade the party and start shooting.
Beautiful and carefully choreographed cinematography (by Christophe Duchange), an unusual score with influences of spaghetti western and gamelan orchestra and tight, short scenes full of focused playing drive us into this alien world and also propel the story forward. The costumes are pretty spiffy too.
Then, moving too quickly and never quite saying enough, we’re into the bit that director/writer David Perrault is actually interested in. The family, realising they can’t stay where they are, make a dash for the coast, where a ship bound for France awaits, led by gun-for-hire Victor (he’s back), Janssens now polishing his Man with No Name credentials.
With the family’s abrupt change in circumstances comes new power relations. Edmond is no longer top dog. His wife’s position also takes a hit, servant Layla’s stock grows, especially as she starts to insist on being treated more as an equal, and as for the sisters, Abigaëlle (Maryne Bertieaux) is sick, Justine (Déborah François) is lost in selfless devotion to her, leaving the youngest, Esther (Alice Isaaz), to rise by her own merits.
And then lascivious Bettie re-appears, seemingly just by chance, which seems a bit of a stretch, along with her gang of badasses with faces covered in burlap sacking. No reason given.
Oddly, considering the piquant if not outright eccentric elements, the characters stubbornly refuse to stay alive in this section, which is full of rote moments familiar from many westerns. Young Esther has the hots for Victor and while Isaaz is good at conveying lust in a young miss, Janssens isn’t very good giving it back. And he’s meant to be the tough guy who likes his women any way he can find them.
As if realising the heat’s gone out of what was a lively drama, Perrault amps up the melodrama, in particular the performance of Moran. Bettie’s sexuality has now become comedic, and there is even a scene where she gyrates pole-dancer style as the light from the flickering flames of a fire give her a good tonguing. My interpretation.
Maddened by lust, Wild Bettie is on course for a showdown with Prim Esther (who actually looks like her pants might be on fire), with Victor as the prize.
A shootout finale brings all the threads together, at the end of which some characters are dead, others wounded, a few still alive to tell the tale. So many strands remain unresolved – Leyla, the oddly absent Justine, wife Madeleine, even Esther, whose film this is meant to be – that the overall sense is of a well-crafted undertaking that got off to a good start but got lost on the way.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021