“It is the weakness of the story that robs Scarlet of the chance to reach the heights of Martin Eden, but it is despite this a testament of Marcello’s talent and keen eye for a story’s milieu.”
At the end of World War I Raphaël (Raphaël Thiéry) returns to his home in Normandy, only to find that his wife Marie has died. She left him with a newborn daughter though, Juliette, now under the care of maternal figure Adeline (Noémie Lvovsky), who took in his wife when Raphaël went off to war. He doesn’t put two and two together, so Adeline has to spell it out to him: Juliette is not his, but the offspring of a rape. When Raphaël witnesses the perpetrator, the owner of the local bar, almost drowning in the bogs outside town, he decides to turn his back, which leads to Raphaël and his makeshift family becoming outcasts.
Juliette (Juliette Jouan) grows up to be a bright and talented young woman, and Raphaël’s talent as a woodworker and toymaker brings in some income. A prophecy as foretold by a wacky woods lady (Yolande Moreau) says Juliette will one day see scarlet sails in the sky that will take her away, but the only thing appearing so far is an airplane flown by Jean (Louis Garrel). A quick romance seems to blossom but dies out almost as soon as it starts, and Juliette is kept waiting for the moment she can spread her wings and fly off like the swallow in her songs to fulfil the prophecy.
Pietro Marcello’s previous film Martin Eden became a runaway success in arthouse circles after premiering at the 2019 Venice Film Festival, so expectations for his new film based on the novel by Alexander Grin were high. Sadly, Scarlet doesn’t quite live up to those expectations. While the film’s sense of place and time is engraved in every pore of its cast and their surroundings, impeccably rendered by Marco Graziaplena’s grainy cinematography and Christian Marti’s production design, the story itself is slight and an overly romanticized look at rural life in interbellum France. Lacking any real conflict, Scarlet boils down to a story about chasing your dreams and broadening your view, as it follows the emancipation of its heroine. Given that Juliette starts the film at only a few months old, it takes Marcello quite some time before reaching the point that Juliette’s journey can truly begin. This essentially breaks Scarlet up into two stories, about Raphaël living in the past, hard as it is for him to let go of the memories of the wife he lost, and about Juliette, a young woman whose dreams and talents are too big for life in the Normandy countryside.
Scarlet opens with a quote from Grin’s novel Scarlet Sails, “We can make miracles come true with our own hands.” This serves as a guideline for the motivations and actions of its characters. Raphaël works miracles with his hands, a true artist with wood and a chisel. Juliette’s miracle has a more magical nature, and her motivations are more transcendent, but her arc seems to contradict the film’s motto: it’s her talent and personality that offer her the chance to aim for a bigger, better future, not hard work. Somewhat of a manic pixie dream girl character, the obstacles on her path are few and easily overcome, effectively erasing the idea of conflict from the story and thus the narrative thrust.
Still, Scarlet is an enjoyable watch for fans of this sort of romantic story, and Marcello’s direction is as strong as in his previous film. Beautifully shot, though perhaps too heavily scored, the film and its characters are engaging despite the lack of nuance in the way they are written, and the cast manages to overcome their thinly written characterizations. Thiéry in particular embodies his gentle giant of a character fully, his hulking figure and hands the size of shovels hiding a heartbreaking tenderness underneath. Jouan, in her debut role, has very little to do but be the pretty-yet-feisty girl, but she convinces in the emotional scenes with her on-screen father. It is the weakness of the story that robs Scarlet of the chance to reach the heights of Martin Eden, but it is despite this a testament of Marcello’s talent and keen eye for a story’s milieu.