Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | January 28th, 2021
Savage State (“L’état sauvage”) (David Perrault, 2019) 3 out of 4 stars.
Set in the middle of the 19th-century American Civil War, director David Perrault’s Savage State follows the travails of a French family trying to escape the escalating conflagration, fleeing their home in St. Charles, Missouri, for the next ship to Paris. Though the patriarch is a successful businessman, no amount of money can insulate them from the sins of the world in which he has made his fortune. What starts as a standard overland journey quickly becomes an existential nightmare, leading to unexpected results. Perhaps most surprising, given how things begin, is how the tale gradually migrates away from the toxic masculinity that so often dominates Westerns and becomes, instead, a profoundly feminist narrative.
There are hints of this later reversal right in the beginning, however, when a French perfume trader finds himself on the bad end of a deal with southern smugglers, despite the assistance of Victor, a tough intermediary (Kevin Janssens, Revenge). Chief among those smugglers is Bettie (Kate Moran, Knife + Heart), a woman not to be trifled with, as we quickly discover. From there, we cut to our main family, consisting of father Edmond (Bruno Todeschini), wife Madeleine (Constance Dollé), daughters Abigaëlle, Justine and Esther (Maryne Bertieaux, Déborah François and Alice Isaaz) and maid (and former slave and now Edmond’s lover) Layla (Armelle Abibou). Though the youngest, Esther is clearly the strongest-willed of the young women, the only one born in America, and close confidante to Layla. She wants far more than the staid existence promised by her father’s place in society. Those dreams will soon be realized, though not at all as she imagined.
Soon, after the arrival of northern troops, who treat the local populace with disdain, Edmond realizes they can’t stay, and hires Victor, newly returned from the ill-fated expedition of the prologue, to guide the family to the coast for safe passage to Europe. And this is where the story truly takes off, launching the characters into a wilderness where all will be tested. Shooting in both Canadian and Spanish landscapes that remove what we see from any possible known trajectory, eastbound or westbound, Perrault creates an almost mythical conflict to come, Bettie reappearing to hunt down Victor, a man who has wronged her deeply. Adding to the otherworldliness of the setting, Bettie’s mercenary companions are all entirely masked men, who could be anybody – spirits even – their identities less important than their violent intent.
Though the dramatic arc is constructed with otherwise solid clarity, Perrault (Our Heroes Are Dead Tonight) adds to the mystery of what transpires via a mise-en-scène that occasionally morphs into dreamscape, the eeriness of events seemingly never quite real. Though they are, as it turns out, with the severest of consequences. Adding to the tension, characters with heretofore little agency begin to grow stronger, whether they be Layla, tired of subservience, or each of the daughters, in turn. Isaaz (Endangered Species), in particular, does a fine with Esther’s development as a fully realized human being, ably assisted by the rest of the ensemble.
Sometimes, beyond the ravishing cinematography, the onscreen symbolism is a bit too much. In addition, there is a subplot involving voodoo rituals that unnecessarily exoticizes a character who is, in other respects, admirably grounded. By the end, despite these shortcomings, the odyssey proves cinematically transformative. Wherever the protagonists end up, there they most definitely are.