Berlinale 2022 review: Une fleur à la bouche (Éric Baudelaire)

“Baudelaire has made a film that asks a provocative question: depending on whether we are looking at a construction or a representation of reality, do we arrive at the same destination?”

Few artists seem to see the world in quite the same way as Éric Baudelaire, who has travelled the world and presented a range of artworks that portray the social and cultural milieux of various places that have moved him to create meaningful pieces across several diverse media. This makes him both an incredible artist and a dedicated documentarian, using his craft to capture the world that lurks in plain sight. Une fleur à la bouche is his own recent offering, functioning as the condensed and cinematic version of “Death Passed My Way and Stuck His Flower in My Mouth”, his ambitious multimedia art installation that uses flowers as a motif for two very different conversations around their importance in the global culture, both literally and metaphorically. Baudelaire puts together a riveting film that is part documentary, part vivid existential drama, both of them using the idea of flowers as a starting point for this incredibly complex but achingly beautiful exploration of the human condition, tenderly facilitated by a director who uses his unique artistic perspective to comment on ideas that may seem obvious in retrospect but are portrayed with such meaningful candour when filtered through his unique, unflinching gaze that always hints at something much deeper.

Contemporary filmmaking has evoked many fascinating discussions about the boundaries between documentaries and narrative storytelling, with modern experimental cinema often proposing the idea that these do not need to be mutually exclusive concepts, as Baudelaire himself has demonstrated on a few occasions. Une fleur à la bouche is separated into two distinct acts. The first is a brief but meaningful glimpse into the inner workings of a flower factory in the Netherlands, where a myriad of specimens are flown from all across the globe and pass through the industrial doors of this factory, which functions as a vital component in Europe’s thriving flower trade. The second is a narrative-based story of two strangers meeting in a French bar, loosely based on the play by Luigi Pirandello, which sees these men having a lengthy conversation that starts as a charming exchange of pleasantries before descending into a deep discussion on the nature of life and death. These are two very different segments, initially comparable only in terms of centering around flowers in some form. However, Baudelaire is not merely placing these two radically different ideas across from each other based on marginal similarities, instead leaping liberally between fact and fiction, deconstructing any boundary that exists between the two and presenting us with a peculiar but riveting set of ideas that take on more meaning when juxtaposed, rather than appearing in complete isolation from one another.

Of the many contrasts in this film, perhaps the most distinct is the use of language. The first act is almost entirely silent, with the exception of the purr of the factory machinery and the droning, unintelligible sounds of workers chattering away in the distance. This sharply contrasts with the second act, in which there is a steady stream of dialogue between the two men who engage in a spirited, extensive conversation. This is about as interesting as the contrast between day and night, with the structure of Une fleur à la bouche making it seem like it is taking place over the course of a single day, in two entirely separate locations, and in different social and cultural strata entirely. The people themselves are incredibly fascinating, whether it be the nameless factory workers whose daily routine Baudelaire briefly captures, or the two characters in the second half (played by Dali Benssalah and Oxmo Puccino, the latter delivering a truly mesmerizing performance as a man with a bundle of secrets). The director clearly cherishes people as much as he does the places he visits, making Une fleur à la bouche an incredibly layered and insightful experimental project. Baudelaire has made a film that asks a provocative question: depending on whether we are looking at a construction or a representation of reality, do we arrive at the same destination? A cursory glance will suggest not, but as we start to see the fascinating correlations between these separate stories the true scope of what the director was doing becomes increasingly clear.

We soon begin to realize how these segments are not just arbitrarily placed across from each other, but function as two components of a singular narrative, which only becomes clear in the striking final moments when the two ideas come together in a simple but evocative piece of dialogue that draws the ideas into a coherent dichotomy. It is an exceptionally well-made, hypnotic film that uses the visual landscape to add nuance to its story. Claire Mathon once again proves she is perpetually in command of her craft, capturing the splendour of these gorgeous flowers and placing them in stark contrast with the cold and arid industrial landscapes, and then documenting every gesture and emotion that crosses the faces of the two characters in the later portions of the film. Composed of two stories that are not immediately related, the film nonetheless has a sense of cohesion in the smaller moments, requiring us to take note of the smaller details which ultimately culminate in a gorgeous and haunting celebration of life, finding the beauty in the banalities of everyday existence and placing emphasis on the importance of living moment to moment. The unforgettable images and the evocative language lead to this enthralling, enigmatic exploration of the nature of life and death, and the various moments that occur in between.