What remains instinctively interesting about the debut feature from French duo Marianne Pistone and Gilles Deroo is not what it says but what it doesn't say. A sort-of but not-quite documentary about ordinary lives in the French seaside town of Courseulles-sur-Mer, Mouton is (in the best tradition of Wong Kar-wai, Apichatpong Weerasethakul or Miguel Gomes) a game of two loosely connected, counterpointing halves.
First, we watch the non-descript daily life of local teenager Aurélien aka Mouton (David Mérabet), who has just legally emancipated himself from his ill mother and works in the kitchen of a local restaurant; then, the very same non-descript daily life after he leaves town. But all of this really only makes sense after seeing Mouton, since it's not until halfway through that you understand where Ms. Pistone and Mr. Deroo are going.
Until then, the film moves in what appears to be a quasi-documentary mode, recording the quiet goings-on of a young man's life. Not just any young man, mind you; the film's initial presentation of an underage Mouton emancipating himself from a mother unfit for motherhood seems at odds with Mouton's look and behaviour as a sweet-natured "special kid". Weekend outings with friends where he's good-naturedly hazed without any second thoughts suggest not everything is quite right with him - though he is clearly a productive and integrated member of society, who eventually finds himself in a fling with fellow waitress Audrey (Audrey Clément).
What happens at the 55-minute mark is, in the words of the directors, a caesura that reveals the second half as the "un-doing" of the first. Now that Mouton is no longer in town, Ms. Pistone and Mr. Deroo go hunting for the traces he left behind and for his continuing presence - if any - in the lives of the people he worked and had fun with. What seemed a documentary outlook on a young man's life is revealed as a fiction and leads into an investigation of the ripples presence and absence leave behind: life goes on, the film seems to say, as people move in and out of it, leaving many, a few, little or no traces.
The poignancy of feeling that the directors are aiming at jars somewhat with the observationally detached tone of the camera, and also contributes to the singular tone the slightly overlong but conceptually intelligent Mouton reaches throughout. It's a welcome addition to the ongoing reevaluation of fictional narrative filmmaking within the confines of the cinémas du réel movement that introduces documentary criteria and techniques, even if it turns out to be more thought-provoking conceptually than as an actual film.
Cast Michaël Mormentyn, David Mérabet, Audrey Clément, Cindy Dumont, Benjamin Cordier, Sébastien Legrand, Emmanuel Legrand
Directors, screenwriters and editors Marianne Pistone and Gilles Deroo; cinematographers Éric Alirol and Jean-Baptiste Delahaye (colour); designer Lionel Roy; production companies Boule de Suif Production and Pictanovo with Le Fresnoy Studio National des Arts Contemporains
Screened April 18th 2014, Lisbon (IndieLisboa 2014 official competition screener)