366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.
DIRECTED BY: David Depesseville
FEATURING: Mirko Giannini, Jehnny Beth, Théo Costa-Marini, Lorine Delin, Bastien Bouillon
PLOT: An orphan boy struggles to adapt to life with his foster family.
COMMENTS: We never would have picked Astrakan, a French drama about a foster child, for coverage on a weird movie site if we hadn’t read that the ending took a sever swerve into the surreal. I hereby inform the reader that, if you stick out 90 minutes of ultra-realism, you will be rewarded at the end with an intoxicated 10 minute digestif. That ending, an aggressive montage of sometimes disturbing and reconfigured memories, presumably distorted under sketchy amateur hypnosis, provides a dreamlike nightcap to a litany of childhood sorrows. If you are strictly searching for a weird movie, you may want to abstain; but if you enjoy solemn, impressionistic art-house dramas with a tart finish of strangeness, Astrakan may be for you.
Astarkan delivers its drama matter-of-factly, as a series of slice-of-life scenes that often omit key context. Like many child actors, Samuul (Mirko Giannini) underplays most of his scenes, which in this case fortuitously serves his character. His blank face and slow, deliberate movements mask his inner thoughts, appropriate for a script that withholds information and forces us to draw our own conclusions. Samuel is psychologically, and physically, constipated. He writes down secrets and buries them in hidden places. Samuel’s abuse is clearly signaled, but not extensively detailed; we aren’t privy to its severity, although at one point we know his foster mother fears that the bruises on his thigh may get him taken away by the state. That mom, played by Jehnny Beth with a troubled sense of economic reality struggling with maternal instinct, does grow attached to Samuel—but not quite attached enough to provide him the minimal protection he would need to thrive. But his foster parents do provide him with a home, gymnastics lessons, a ski trip, a bit of dear pocket money, and occasional scraps of tenderness—and who will take care of Samuel, if not them? The foster system is an imperfect compromise, but what is the alternative?
Astrakan was shot on film in rural France; the bright blue skies and verdant fields of its pastoral setting contrast with the troubled darkness of Samuel’s existence. In keeping with the hardcore realism, the story is told with no non-diegetic music, until Bach’s “Agnus Dei” (“lamb of God”) comes in at the finale. Although it’s not explained within the movie, the movie’s title comes from the pelts of an exotic breed of black sheep, which must be killed when young, before their wool loses its dark color.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Having established his skills and careful competence over 90-odd minutes, Depesseville then elects to showcase different facets of his talent in what amounts to an extended, dreamlike, impressionistic coda…”–Neil young, Screen Daily (festival screening)