Cannes 2023 review: Un prince (Pierre Creton)

Un prince cultivates many fascinating and provocative ideas, being stylistically quite bleak but still finding beauty in the overgrown landscapes.”

While he may have directed only a small handful of films, each time Pierre Creton steps behind the camera, it results in a fascinating and bespoke work that touches on a variety of themes, whether he is investigating broad social concepts, or crafting intimate visual poems that capture the spirit of the zeitgeist as he has seen it develop through his distinct directorial perspective. His most recent offering is the compelling Un prince, in which the director goes in search of the deeper meaning behind one’s identity, and the challenges faced when it comes to confronting the psychological aspects of our existential growth. The film is centred on a young man who attends a remote school somewhere in the countryside, where he trains to become a botanist, but discovers that it is his sexuality that begins to flower as he immerses himself in this peculiar but enthralling world. Not a particularly easy film to follow at first, and one that requires us to gradually acclimate ourselves to the specific tone and register in which Creton is working, Un prince is a fascinating achievement. A gentle but daring film that may focus on the pastoral beauty of the natural world, but makes it clear that there are secrets lurking beneath the surface, each one revealing more details about the human condition, which is the primary motivation for this extraordinary ode to the unusual contradictions of everyday life and the individual journeys we take to understand them.

Un prince is primarily built on the concept of memory, with Creton employing an approach in which the majority of the story is told through narration, and where multiple different voices are heard, each one adding detail and nuance to a story that is already teeming with complexity. Each character provides their interpretation of the overarching concepts that drive the film, as well as contributing their own unique observations about a number of different themes, regardless of whether they are directly related to the narrative, or merely incidental and anecdotal additions to this vivid existential portrait. The film is built primarily on personal reflections and keen observations, every one of these characters being a surrogate for the director in some way, participants in his provocative game of examining sexuality and identity through a decisively odd, and perhaps even unsettling, artistic lens. Using fragments of each character’s perspective, Creton pieces together a disquieting examination of the protagonist’s budding sexuality, which is not a linear process, but rather one that grows and retracts as he becomes more comfortable with not only the physical act of intimacy, but the psychological aspects, which occur alongside. The recollections provided by the characters aid in this exploration of identity and capture the unquenchable feeling of longing that defines the film and propels it forward, unveiling new secrets and resolving the probing questions.

As one of the characters remarks about the protagonist, Creton has a “taste for transgression”, and possesses a craving that can only be satiated by examining these unnerving themes.  The narrative is already deeply moving enough to qualify Un prince as an immediately effective work, so the visual component only emphasizes the exceptional nature of this film, elevating many of its themes and adding to the overall experience, which is primarily driven by atmosphere. The juxtaposition of bleak imagery (with the entire film being set in the semi-developed countryside) and beautiful, evocative narration creates a vivid contrast, which Creton often revisits as the film progresses, using both elements to create a simple but detailed examination of these major themes. The director understands the impact of small visual clues, such as how he represents the concept of desire or the inevitability of the passage of time (the brief moment in which the film jumps forward is one of the most striking moments in a film this year), showing how the body grows older, but the heart remains unchanged. The intersection of different voices weaves together a vivid tapestry of human desire and sexuality, and when paired with the striking visual images (the oscillation between symmetrical and off-centre presents an intentional choice to create the ebb and flow of comfort necessary to undergo this journey with the characters), we have a film that is deeply provocative, tenderly placing different artistic mechanisms together to tell this poignant story of desire and how it manifests in our identity.

Un prince is a masterful film, carefully constructed by a director whose intentions were almost as daring as his method of telling this story, which is certainly as far from conventional as one can get without it becoming too overtly experimental, since (as we see through some of the film’s main themes) there is value in tradition, at least to a certain point. The film is engaging and extremely captivating, and its cold, aloof style is contrasted with a passionate, pulsating depiction of sexuality, raw but never exploitative or vulgar, maintaining a standard of elegance from which it never deviates. There are a few surprises to be found throughout the film, both in terms of the direction in which the story goes and how the director portrays certain subjects, but it is mainly a subdued, sophisticated affair that interweaves intense beauty with an arid sadness, which form the foundation of the film. Un prince cultivates many fascinating and provocative ideas, being stylistically quite bleak but still finding beauty in the overgrown landscapes, which serve as the stage on which this entrancing, sexually charged psychological drama can play out in lively, stunning detail.