Review: Counterprogram your summer with the magical realist charms of ‘Scarlet’

Raphaël Thiéry and Juliette Jouan in the movie "Scarlet."
(Kino Lorber)
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Classify Pietro Marcello’s sweet new film “Scarlet” at your own risk, because its pleasures are as diverse and unexpected as a stroll through uncharted lands: Mapping the terrain wouldn’t be half as enjoyable as letting the place host its own truths and enchantments.

Following the Italian director’s “Martin Eden,” a rollicking masterpiece of transposed adaptation that dropped Jack London’s American bildungsroman onto sometime-in-the-20th-century Naples, Marcello has turned to another literary work, Russian author Aleksandr Grin’s 1923 novella, “Scarlet Sails,” setting his filmic embellishing in poverty-stricken post-World War I Normandy, France. (Marcello’s co-writers are Maurizio Braucci, Maud Ameline and Geneviève Brisac.)

The result is another transfixing blend, this time of historical space and folk-tale wonder, a ballad cranked to arresting life by a poor widower’s survival before finding melodic purpose in the liberation of a forthright young woman. It’s the supple, harmonious sorcery of love and flight Marcello is after with this countryside tale, meaning “Scarlet” also counterprograms nicely with the more expensively rigged summer entertainment vying for your movie dollars.


Not that realism isn’t on offer, as well. As with “Martin Eden,” director/co-writer Marcello — who also makes documentaries — deploys unidentified archival footage as nonfiction stitching of sorts. For “Scarlet,” he starts with tinted film of soldiers returning from the war before settling on the hobbled walk and craggy appearance of his story’s Raphaël (Raphaël Thiéry), a woodworker arriving back home to learn that his wife has died, leaving him an infant daughter, Juliette, he hadn’t known about. There’s an achingly tender close-up of her tiny pale hand resting on his calloused, grimy mitt, and we sense the contrast of delicacy and hardship that awaits this duo’s way through their world. (Thiéry, an acclaimed visual artist, had those hands already, but he’s also a screen natural.)

A gruff craftsman with a big heart and a musical ear (he marks time with a lonely accordion), Raphaël struggles to land steady work locally, where attitudes toward peasants aren’t friendly. He turns to toymaking instead, selling his handmade wares in Paris to an admiring shop owner. At home he raises his adoring daughter (played by three different child actors) with the collective help of his kind farmwoman landlord Adeline (Noémie Lvovsky), the family of a blacksmith, and — when she’s wandering the woods — a white-haired seeress (Yolande Moreau) evoking a vision of “scarlet sails” and a fantastical departure for young Juliette.

With Raphael’s repairing of a disused piano, however, and Juliette’s growth into a smart, resilient dreamer with a gift for song — captivatingly played as an adult by newcomer Juliette Jouan — a kind of music-fueled, Jacques Demy-tinged magic takes over “Scarlet.” Cinematographer Marco Graziaplena’s 16-millimeter intimacy adds storybook radiance to its earthy authenticity, never more so than when a swimming Juliette’s singing attracts a handsome, eccentric aviator (Louis Garrel) , whose biplane had just crash-landed nearby — into a fairy tale, apparently.

Even as the narrative stays true to its atmosphere of a portrait of endurance in the face of adversity, the adopted buoyancy feels earned and holds. There are poems set to lilting strains that turn into themes, and because the movie’s composer is mood master Gabriel Yared, the melodies linger nicely without feeling overplayed. It’s a reminder that in today’s soundscape-driven, needle-drop era, an artfully draped, tuneful motif can be something to cherish.

As are Marcello’s gifts as a filmmaker, which aim for achieving something timeless, if a tad elusive. One can sense an alignment with the aura of mystery, toil and eternal beauty conjured by his talented countryfolk Alice Rohrwacher (“Happy as Lazzaro”) and the duo of Alessio Rigo de Righi and Matteo Zoppis (“The Tale of King Crab”), even if Marcello has chosen here a Russian story and French setting to explore rather than an Italian one. The world of “Scarlet” is one of magical realism first and foremost, anyway, in which specificities fall away to give room for more enigmatic, unhurried charms.


In French with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes

Playing: Starts Friday, Landmark Nuart, West Los Angeles; and Laemmle Glendale