Radical Empathy: Our Review of ‘Documenteur’

Posted in Movies, Retrospective, Theatrical by - March 29, 2018
Radical Empathy: Our Review of ‘Documenteur’

Documenteur has life imitating art as a French woman Emilie Cooper (Sabine Mamou) recovers from a breakup. Work as a contract typist keeps her busy but she also has to consider her family living situation. Emilie and her little son Martin (Mathieu Demy) couch surf all over L.A. She is trying to locate a home for them. She does this while trying to pick up the possessions she scattered through the city. Her only refuge is trying to see the loneliness she feels through others and their faces. The movie is her story as much as it is Martin’s, a rambunctious kid. Martin longs to see his father in France, but he integrates better into American culture than Emilie. He still loves Emilie who tries to push him into independence, forcing him into becoming a latchkey kid.

What I’ll say about this film is that it captures the balance of being a mother and a sexual being. There are a few flashbacks of her naked husband and him making love to her. She has moments of desire that she doesn’t always act on. The honest content of these images might be jarring for some audiences. Thankfully the transitions here have a smoothness unique to Varda’s style. She also provides a variation of that gaze and interior thought in Martin. He tries to negotiate a semblance of normalcy while living with Emilie. The film implies that their situation as drifters is one of many changes that he accepts. And since he’s not able to play ball with his mother or watch TV, he shows curiosity towards his neighbours.

Documenteur also negotiates the beauty in Mur Murs, another L.A. Varda film, and presents itself as a valid counterpoint. There’s beauty here too, from the same murals that Mur Murs shows. There’s also the beautiful things and apartments that Emilie’s boss (Delphine Seyrig) and friends own. Varda puts these in contrast with the walls and surfaces in Emilie’s diasporic neighbourhood, which are bare and rotting. It’s a more typical depiction of the city. Although Varda is only playing with what she can have and we can’t fault her for that. These monumental surrounding serve as a decent backdrop for a woman dealing with a breakup. Audiences know her for having characters who sublimate pain. She’s not much sublimating here as she is deflecting, but it still makes for an interesting depiction of that emotion.

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While Paolo Kagaoan is not taking long walks in shrubbed areas, he occasionally watch movies and write about them. His credentials are as follows: he has a double major in English and Art History. This means that, for example, he will gush at the art direction in the Amityville house and will want to live there, which is a terrible idea because that house has ghosts. Follow him @paolokagaoan on Instagram but not while you're working.
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