A young woman yearns for emancipation in the decades between both world wars in this Italian-French co-production from Pietro Marcello.
Kino Lorber is a film distributor that prides itself in providing physical copies of silent relics from the medium’s past as well as obscure arthouse cinema from all over the world. It stands to reason why the work of Pietro Marcello appeals to the niche company; the Italian director began his career as a documentarian until his breakthrough into narrative storytelling with Martin Eden in 2019, but his follow-up feature Scarlet sees his process evolve majestically in the blending of documentary storytelling with tropes from the fantasy genre, which tells a heavy but ultimately lovely historical period fable about our magical power as individuals.
Scarlet begins in 1918, where Raphaël (Raphael Theirry) returns from fighting in World War I to his village home in rural France only to learn the revelation that his wife Marie has died of pneumonia, leaving their infant daughter Juliette in the care of Madame Adeline (Noémie Lvovsky), a farmer’s widow. Despite outrageous ostracization from his community, Raphaël remains a doting father to Juliette by making a living as a craftsman, opening her mind to music through saving a harmonium just for her, and even carving her toys from wood.
Raphaël and Adeline’s dedication brings about a curiosity within Juliette that draws ridicule amongst her peers, but also leads her into meeting an unnamed forest witch (Yolande Moreau), who prophesies that one day “scarlet sails” will take her away. Flash forward to 1938, and now-adult Juliette (Juliette Jouan) has a chance encounter with a mysterious but handsome pilot named Jean (Louis Garrel). Will he sweep Juliette off her feet, or will she have to find her own way toward emancipation from the hateful denizens around her before the next World War?
Juliette’s quest for freedom is always compelling in Scarlet thanks to Marcello’s creative direction. Most filmmakers use archival footage as a safety net when a more appealing shot is called for after test screenings (eg. the opening shot of The Menu), but Marcello uses it to make his stories feel like unearthed pieces of history. Such examples here include cutaways to horticulture around the village and a montage right at the start that shows platoons of soldiers arriving home in covered trucks and foot parades to the unspectacular sounds of old film stock, only to cut straight to Raphaël’s lonely trek home after the opening title card.
Marcello must also be commended for matching this archival footage by accentuating Raphaël and Juliette’s respective narratives with breathtaking cinematography coupled with the choice of shooting on super 16mm film and a 4:3 aspect ratio to make every detail of a given shot pop, from all the waves of the ocean and colors of a grassy landscape to the wrinkles on Raphaël’s worn hands which emphasize his exhaustion, as other scenes brim with veritable warmth. On that note, the script goes the extra mile by taking fantasy tropes and turning them on their head; composer Gabriel Yared brings musical numbers to life with sweeping melodies, but they’re countered by the film’s realistic tone, such as when Juliette sings a tune about feminine bravery with Adeline’s daughter while they take each other’s measurements.
This genre subversion is also apparent in dynamic compositions that frame Juliette like a princess longing to be rescued, from an instance where her white dress pops among the forest that surrounds her as she sleeps in a tree to her discovery of Jean, during which the shadows of the branches she’s hiding behind filter the light against her face, conveying her suspicion over the pilot’s intent upon his entry into her life. Even Juliette’s tormentors mock her by calling her ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, which she quickly subverts by responding with demonstrative fire, unlike your standard damsels-in-distress. This realistic portrayal of tropes from folklore succeeds in making Scarlet an ingenious fairy tale without the fantasy.
And for someone whose career in entertainment began in music, Jouan delivers a captivating breakthrough performance in her first acting role by culminating Juliette’s growth into adulthood by displaying her inherited headstrong qualities with an unbridled internal strength. Raphaël Thierry is also affecting as her father, whose inner grief over his wife’s death and trauma from the unspoken horrors of combat can be read in all of his pained, withered facial expressions.
As melodically pleasing as the musical numbers are here, they do cause tonal whiplash and stick out like a sore thumb amongst the somber developments of the story, and the whole of its lifelike narrative to jarring effect. It’s also worth noting that it does take time for the fairy tale-esque elements to make their presence in this adaptation of the novel Scarlet Sails by Alexander Grin, and the main idea here has been proposed in a myriad of other films.
But the craft on display throughout Marcello’s sophomore feature creates a story brimming with visual and aural beauty, and one that sets Marcello’s career as well as those of stars Juliette Jouan and Raphael Thierry on a promising path. Audiences looking for something new in the fantasy genre, who appreciate the artistic side of filmmaking, or need a reminder of their ability to conjure miracles, whether they be works of art and song, acts of fiery strength, the capacity to nurse someone to health after a catastrophe, to mold their children from infancy into curious and independent adults, or just to survive the day will find Scarlet enchanting from start to finish.