Early into Helena Wittmann’s 2017 feature debut, Drift, a character recounts a Papua New Guinean tale of the world’s creation. Back when the planet was all water, a giant crocodile kept paddling around preventing the sand to settle; only after a warrior slaughtered the beast did the land jut into being. A few minutes into Human Flowers of the Flesh a sailor shares another legend, this one from Ancient Greece. As he chopped Medusa’s head, Perseus dropped it on the shore; the seaweed absorbed the Gorgon’s petrifying powers, and that’s how coral was born. Wittmann has a knack for myths, and her cinema radiates a certain mythical grandeur, a pleasure as primeval and untimely as the stories her projects orbit around. Flowers, in that, feels both ancient and novel. It’s a film whose visual experiments invite one to see the world anew, even as the demons that fuel it harken back to a passion for storytelling that’s as old as time itself. 

Where Drift traced a journey across the Atlantic, following a young woman as she sailed from the Caribbean all the way to Germany, Wittmann’s second feature is geographically much more compact. It opens as a crew of five—four men and a woman, skipper Ida (Yorgos Lanthimos’ regular Angeliki Papoulia)—putter about a caliginous Marseille. But the sojourn comes to a halt when a few locals the quintet hangs with start sharing stories about the French Foreign Legion, piquing Ida and her sailors’ interest. A few mysterious anecdotes later and the five ship out aboard their two-masted schooner to Sidi Bel Abbès, Algeria, once home to the French Army corps’ headquarters, a cross-Mediterranean quest to retrieve what’s left of the Legion.

Not that Flowers has much plot or structure to cling to. Per Drift, this doesn’t follow a linear, three-act narrative arc, but beckons one into immersive experience reminiscent of the works of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnographic Lab. The life of a legionnaire, a crew member describes it, reading excerpts Wittmann sources from Marguerite Duras (“The Sailor from Gibraltar”) and Friedrich Glauser (“Gourrama”) is “always in motion and fluid.” So is Flowers. As the trip kicks off, thirty minutes in, the film splinters into something permeable and amorphous. The threadbare narrative becomes more and more evanescent. Time stands still, exchanges peter out, characters become mere ciphers, and the sea swallows the screen whole, conjuring an aqueous limbo redolent of the cradling one felt all through Drift’s transatlantic voyage. The trance is very much Wittmann’s own making: as in her debut, she juggles multiple roles—director, writer, cinematographer, editor. Even after the quintet reaches Algeria, Wittmann keeps bolting back to the Mediterranean, as if unable to resist its pull. And it’s in this liquid state that Flowers crafts some of its most singular images. A shot of the sea’s surface dissolves into an underwater view of a plane wreck littered with algae and shells; later on, and more enigmatic still, Flowers suddenly makes room for what look like Petri dishes teeming with microscopic sea-life, and Wittmann captures an extraterrestrial universe dotted with minuscule organisms, crustaceans, bacteria. 

The two scenes exemplify the balletic way Flowers moves along: a zooming in and a diving into that disrupt an otherwise-conventional, horizontal journey from point A to B. Watching Ida and co make their way across the Mediterranean and then roam a sun-scorched Algeria feels like padding over a quilt of different histories and different realms—human and animal, vegetal and mineral—layered over each other. Which turns Flowers into a kind of excavation. There’s an unmistakable haptic dimension to Wittmann’s film, arguably more evident here than it was in Drift. Everything from the recurrent close-to-the-body camera angles to the nighttime shots that blur the divide between sky and sea to the faded postcards of Sidi Bel Abbés Ida rubs her fingers over double as an invitation to turn our eyes into organs of touch, to contemplate the film itself as a material, tangible presence—an artefact washed ashore. 

In that, Flowers both continues and expands Drift’s project. Both draw inspiration from the ancestral mysteries of the sea; their magic allure lies not so much in their tenuous narratives as in their richly textured surfaces. Beau Travail hovers above the proceedings as a key touchstone—down to the casting of Denis Lavant, who gets a late cameo as a legionnaire marching through Sidi Bel Abbés as a synecdoche of the French corps. But even in the few segments when Flowers apes Beau Travail most explicitly, Wittmann complicates her ties to Claire Denis’s 1999 masterpiece in fascinating ways. A scene that echoes that film’s morning rituals, soldiers standing topless and saluting the sun at dawn, is here turned into a study of their shadows moving over concrete, their bodies elided from the frame and still tantalizingly close to us. “You’re everywhere,” Ida says of the legionnaires as she sits and smokes in Lavant’s flat. It’s a sentence that could just as well apply to the many ghosts dotting Flowers: traces of people, heroes and legends that have haunted the Earth from time immemorial.  

Human Flowers of Flesh premiered at the Locarno Film Festival.

Grade: A-

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