A film enamored with stories and with the art of telling them, Éléonore Saintagnan’s Camping du Lac opens with the director addressing the audience the way a raconteur might start a campfire yarn: “I’d like to tell you about an odd thing that happened…” Many things will indeed be told over the seventy minutes that follow—some odd, some improbable, some outright incredible. An artist and a documentarian, Saintagnan has a way of seamlessly dancing between truth and fiction, and her feature debut unspools like a tale passed on through generations. Yet her bewitching film does something more than capture the anachronistic pleasures of storytelling; it also understands the practice as a moral duty, one of the last means at our disposal to find meaning and solace in each other. 

Here in triple duty as writer, director, and actor, Saintagnan plays a filmmaker whose Renault breaks down near the shores of Lake Guerlédan, in the northwest of France. Having handed over the car to a local mechanic and relocated to the titular trailer park, her temporary sojourn soon stretches into a much longer stint. Propelled by editor Julie Naas’s ellipses, days become weeks become months, as Saintagnan starts engaging with the lakeside community and Camping shifts from a personal diary into a portrait of her new eccentric neighbors. There’s a single mother who runs a chicken farm, a cowboy-hatted man from Ohio, a handful of fishermen and drifters. And there are stories, myths, and legends—none more extraordinary than the rumor that Lake Guerlédan might be home to a fish of astonishing size, a self-regenerating Loch Ness-like beast that lore said once fed Saint Corentin, a local patron. 

Chance encounters, serendipitous detours, tall-tales: Camping bristles with all manner of stories, each unfurling the other like the network of a flower. Saintagnan’s script forsakes a three-act plot for a series of vignettes built around the trailer park’s residents, plus a few dramatizations of Saint Corentin’s saga. But she doesn’t linger on any of her subplots, never mind how rich and puzzling. Fittingly for a film that orbits around people as well as animals, Camping embraces a canine grammar, moving with a meandering, restless curiosity, pursuing an idea only until a more intriguing one comes along. And while Saintagnan’s rendezvous around the lake remain for the most part unexplored threads, the effect isn’t alienating so much as mesmeric. The director doesn’t reveal so much as hint at, and her film leaves you with the electrifying feeling that what you’re watching is only the last layer of countless other narrative sediments that make up the place and its fabric. Camping is a fable, of course, but one that keeps sprawling outward, fueled by a lilting, synths-heavy score by Gaëtan Campos and Yannick Dupont that amplifies the film’s dreamlike atmosphere and easy-going rhythms.  

That aura is the source of Camping’s charm, but it also presents a spiritual context for a film about the binding power of storytelling. The question the townsfolk are wrestling with isn’t whether the monster fish exist. Real or not, the animal has spawned a myriad narratives that now keep the community together; a far more pressing dilemma, to which the film devotes its final stretch, is what would happen if the myth were to suddenly crumble. That the question takes on such life-or-death stakes is because Saintagnan understands stories as a connective tissue around which people can find meaning and refuge. A few reviews have already discussed Camping in conjunction with the cinema of Agnes Varda and Apichatpong Weerasethakul; appropriate references, not least for the film’s interest in local faces and for some human-fish interactions that hark back to Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. But inasmuch as it operates at the intersection between truth and lore, Camping also exists in a thought-provoking conversation with the work of two other genre nomads, Alessio Rigo de Righi and Matteo Zoppis. Long before their 2022 breakthrough The Tale of King Crab—another film besotted with fables and fabulists—their 2013 short Belva Nera also tracked a mysterious creature that may or may not have been imagined by the rural community which it supposedly haunted. 

So it is with Camping, a film that begins as a first-person account and gradually swells into a more polyphonic canvas. Saintagnan saunters into it as its protagonist, a voyeur who literalizes her position by recording her neighbors’ chats with a parabolic mic. But she’s slowly pushed to her film’s margins; sucked into Camping’s narrative whirlpool, she’s no longer its exclusive narrator, only a privileged listener, powered by love as much as curiosity for that strange world and its denizens. Which is not to reduce this to some rose-tinted fantasia. Saintagnan isn’t oblivious to the way capitalism can penetrate even the most impervious enclaves and turn their stories into marketable commodities. In Camping, no sooner is the fish’s legend used to promote tourism than the lake’s waters are siphoned away at night by thieves looking to sell them on the black market. Only then does the film’s balance of truth and fiction collapse. The leviathan haunting Lake Guerlédan might be a spoof; the environmental catastrophe Saintagnan eventually turns to is not. Wistful as Camping might first come across, it isn’t an eulogy Saintagnan has crafted, but a furious plea to nurture and pass on stories—the only way we can outlive the things that keep us apart.  

Camping du Lac screened at the 2023 Thessaloniki International Film Festival.

Grade: B

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