Sunday, May 25, 2008

An Unhealthy Body

Shown as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “New Directors/New Films” festival, Michelange Quay’s feature-length fiction film début Eat, for This Is My Body (Mange, ceci est mon corps) was a standout. With this film, the new director Quay draws on influences from Italian neo-realism, with his depiction of the Haitian landscape, peoples and poverty, using both actors and non-actors, while placing these elements firmly within an alluring and poetic dreamscape, and establishing a powerful rhetoric of opposites.

On the narrative level, we are taken on a journey through Haiti, where the island nation itself is the main protagonist of the film, perhaps the “body” that the film’s title refers to. Haiti lays bare its slum quarters, its dried-out rivers, and a landscape where little, if anything, seems to grow. After a lengthy opening shot where the camera flies over this terrain, a compelling soundtrack is introduced, that throughout the film comments upon and challenges the already intriguing imagery. Here, while seeing the images of the not-so-nutritious Haitian landscape, the sounds of a woman giving birth to a child are interwoven, before the images of the birth scene are actually shown. Already, the contrasts between life and death becomes clear, a contrast that stays in focus throughout the film, questioning life and death in a postcolonial and poverty-stricken nation.

A group of young boys walk barefoot from the beach to a villa that might be a boarding school, owned by a French matriarch (Catherine Samie) and her daughter (Sylvie Testud). This house, in all of its isolation from the Haiti that has already been represented (these scenes were actually shot in France) seems like a no-place, where everything can and will be negotiated, and where the roles of the people in the house intertwine and boundaries blur, as the relationships between the two white women and the two black men that live and work in the villa become extremely ambiguous and problematic as the men’s roles interchange between being the lover/ nurse/ servant/, however all the time clearly serving the women’s wants and needs.

As the boys arrive at the villa, the daughter in the house, or Madame as she calls herself, sits with them around a table and expresses her regrets for not having anything to serve them, knowing they are all hungry. Looking at the empty plates distributed on the table in front of them, a most bizarre and beautiful scene starts, as the boys chant “Merci,” encouraged by Madame. Next, as Madame has left the room, a big layer cake placed on the middle of the table dominates the picture. One by one, the perplexed boys dig into the cake and starts eating it, more or more ferociously, until a cake fight breaks out. Ironically, the food that just a second ago was missing, now exists in excess, and while the first situation was responded to with humbleness, the response to the latter develops into nonchalance and total carelessness.

With the almost complete absence of dialogue, and the clashing of aural and optical situations in a series of shorter vignettes that Eat, for This Is My Body is composed of, the film represents a very interesting commentary on post-colonialism and poverty, and Michelange Quay has introduced himself as a fundamentally serious and creative director, in his original way of approaching and tackling a very difficult subject-matter through a highly innovative and humorous style.

by Maria Fosheim Lund

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