by Hope Madden
A confounding, beautiful, effective feat of visual storytelling, Astrakan delivers a poignant study in the creation of a troubled youth.
Samuel (Mirko Giannini) has recently come to stay with foster parents Marie (Jehnny Beth, Paris, 13th District) and Clément (Bastien Bouillon, Night of the 12th) and their two sons. Director David Depesseville opens on the family’s zoo trip. All seems well until they stop at Marie’s parents’ farm for some milk.
Marie’s exhausted from chasing the boys around. Clément is angry at the amount the family spent. Samuel’s to blame, but there’s not much they can do, they need the pension he brings in. It’s a conversation – one of many – where a quiet, observant Samuel witnesses with some confusion his place in this world.
There’s nothing preachy or maudlin about Depesseville’s film as it shadows a year or so in the life of a boy who wants to feel loved, a boy who’s simultaneously drawn to and revolted by sex because of its confusing sense of powerlessness. Of a bullied boy, never self-pitying, who longs for some kind of protection and, without it, little by little finds ways to feel powerful and noticed.
The entire cast is sublime, but young Giannini captivates attention every moment he’s on screen.
Depesseville’s approach, based on a scrip he co-wrote with Clara Bourreau, delivers a sensitive exploration of a very rocky coming-of-age. There are few real villains here, and fewer still heroes. The physical manifestations of Samuel’s untold prior traumas are seen by Clément as rebellious outbursts requiring a beating, while Marie enlists the help of some kind of family aura reader. If Children’s Services thought the family was not doing well together, they might take Samuel from them. She immediately points out that they need the pension.
The film amounts to a series of beautifully filmed, emotionally moving sketches, tender, empathetic and tragic. The gorgeous cinematography, though welcome, feels almost at odds with the realism of the content, but Depesseville brings the entire vision to an unusual and somewhat mystical conclusion that benefits immeasurably from the almost impressionistic beauty of the entire tale.
Astrakan is an impressive, moving slice of life that understands what turns a child into something troubling.