A Delicate Balance

DEPARTURE (15) Written and Directed by Andrew Steggall, with Juliet Stephenson, Alex Lawther and Phénix Brossard. UK/FR 2015 109 mins.

I think it was Glenda Jackson, the actor and MP, who said, 'you watch a play with other people but you watch a film alone', or something like that. (If it wasn't Glenda Jackson, I apologise, but I'm only quoting her so I can disagree. I'm not sure what the context was. Perhaps she was making a case for the primacy of theatre. Whatever.)

The whole point of watching a film in a cinema is to watch it with other people, people who you don't necessarily know. It's not just the big screen and the big sound, it's the getting ready and going out, the occasion of it all, that makes the experience special. You can have a coffee, or a drink, eat a meal at home, but people go out for all these things.

Everyone knows this of course. Except there's something about the cinema experience that seems not to be social, that seems, well, the only word I can think of is industrial. The film industry.

Making a film is expensive. Even a cheap film is expensive. Building a cinema is expensive. The projector is designed to run day and night, industrial. But you know, kitting out a restaurant is expensive. The kitchen is filled with industrial stuff, churning out meals day and night. So what's your point?

It's almost exactly 10 years since digital projection became widely available in cinemas. Yes, the yellows were deeper in the old analogue film, yadda, yadda (I love vinyl, too) but the essential experience of cinema is social, not the character of the colour, and digital held out the possibility of transforming the cinema experience into something utterly new and different from what went before. Except it didn't.

Before digital, films came and went from the cinema with dizzying speed; after digital, the films still come and go from the cinema with dizzying speed. That's if they come at all.

In the old days there were only so many prints of a film, hundreds for a big Hollywood extravaganza, down to only a couple for an arthouse flick. Cinemas were in a queue for a print and the print had to move on to the next cinema no matter what.

Digital means that there are an infinite number of prints, as many as you like, and cinemas can hold onto the print for as long as they like, or as long as they have storage on their servers. And we all know that digital storage these days is cheap as chips.

So what's the story? The story is you, the audience. Cinemas don't know who you are. Or what you want.

You're joking!

The film industry has a number of layers: financial (they fund the film), production (they make the film), distribution (they market the film) and exhibition (they show the film).

Which of these layers listens to the audience? The short answer is none or them. They each listen to the layer immediately above themselves. (Financial doesnt listen to anybody.)

But don't they all listen to the box office? That's the voice of the audience. Ah, yes, the box office. That binary interaction, either I buy a ticket or I don't. Yes or no. A one or a zero. A concept which negates the essential character of cinema as social. A film is both product and social experience. Just like any art work, its dual nature is, or should be, in everlasting conflict.

That's it in a nutshell for the film industrial complex. Trying to make sense of it all are filmmakers.

At last we might get to the film review. I don't care about any of this. I just want to see good films.

OK, fine. This film, along with the other two films reviewed here, needs to be seen, and seen in a cinema. These films aren't products, they are much more than that, but they are in danger of being ignored, lost, discarded.

In the case of Departure, Andrew Steggall, who wrote and directed, and Brian Fawcett, cinematographer, have both done a number of short films, but this is a feature debut for both of them.

It's your first feature film. Which way do you go? Horror, zombies, sci-fi, a combination of all three? What do you have in the way of resources? A picturesque house in the south of France, a few really good actors; that's about it really. A truly risky thing to do is to film a domestic drama using a series of metaphors and motifs, some so subtle they are easy to miss, like the plastered up crack in the wall behind the boy's bed. Others are more overt, like the bridges, one from which the local boy dives into the reservoir, another, larger, in Grasse. There is the bonfire of the furniture, the motor bike which won't start, the truck which will never move again, the dresser with the crockery, I could go on.

Mother and son have come to France to pack up their holiday house which is being sold. Elliot, the son, strikes up a friendship with Clément, from Paris but staying in the local village with his aunt. The Mother, Juliet Stevenson, is barely holding on to a disintegrating marriage. Such a story could be told with dialogue, as a play.

But rather than giving the story a sub-Pinteresque, or melodramatic bent, Director and Cinematographer have, to an extent, created a new style, a genuinely visual kind of storytelling that adds layers to a film which is deceptively simple, satisfyingly natural, delicately balanced.

Film is an art form. Every now and again something comes along which transcends the arms race of more money, more effects, more roller coaster. This film is gentle, subtle, visual and, in its way, devastating.

See it - in the cinema!

Paul Corcoran