Surrender your electronic devices. That is the first thing the aesthetically singular Eugène Green would have us do to escape the influence of the barbarian hordes. It is probably good advice. Although a prolific filmmaker, his heart famously remains in the Baroque era. However, he conflates both Medieval times and our current era in Waiting for the Barbarians (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Rendez-Vous with French Cinema.
Green just isn’t working towards the same goals of other filmmakers. Influenced by the Baroque dramatic tradition, Green’s films embrace and amplify the artificial nature of the theater (and cinema) rather than attempt to create an illusion of verisimilitude. When they work, they still create a rapturously beautiful canvas upon which his narratives play out—La Sapience and The Portuguese Nun being prime examples, whereas The Son of Joseph was a weirdly smarmy misfire we shall henceforth pretend never happened. Barbarians is something of a return to Spartan form for Green, even though it may very well be his most demanding film yet.
Produced as part of a workshop, Barbarians is experimental in its ethos. Six modern-dress refugees fleeing unseen barbarians hordes take refuge with a Medieval Mage and his wife, the Magess. However, right from the start, it appears doubtful the barbarians really exist. They are just projections of our modern anxieties. Perhaps the six asylum-seekers will come to understand this when they finally start talking honestly among themselves. They will also have help from the ghost of the Mage’s daughter, who died tragically young, as well as the Arthurian parable their hosts stage as a play for their guests’ edification.
Obviously, this will appeal to a very narrow stratum of cineastes, but for the open-minded, the hushed, airless vibe is quite arresting. Despite the minimalist production, Green’s faithful cinematographer, Raphaël O’Byrne gives it an evocative glow. The cast also adapts to Green’s rigorous style quite well. Indeed, he demands a deceptive deadpan that is outwardly stoic, yet suggests the speaker is connected to things much deeper and mysterious than are dreamt of in our philosophy.
Green is not exactly inclined to hand the audience his takeaways on a silver platter. Yet, this film seems like a subtle rebuke to those who would live in perpetual fear and outrage focused on the Trumps and Le Pens of the world. Clearly, the Mages suggest the best way to counter barbarism is to live a rich, productive, and cultured life, but that means we must refocus from without to within. Or perhaps not. Implying meaning on Barbarians could be an endless parlor game for an intrepid few. Recommended as a rebound for Green’s elite followers, Waiting for the Barbarians screens tomorrow (3/13) and Friday (3/16), as part of French Rendez-Vous ’18, at the Walter Reade.