A Prince Nicholas Elliott

In Pierre Creton’s latest film, a delightfully unpredictable tale of couplings and throuplings in rural northwest France.

Antoine Pirotte as young Pierre-Joseph in A Prince. Courtesy Strand Releasing.

A Prince, directed by Pierre Creton, now playing at IFC Center, 323 Sixth Avenue, New York City

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Like Pierre-Joseph, the character he plays in the last stretch of his new film, A Prince, Pierre Creton works as a freelance gardener in the Pays de Caux, an area of Normandy swept by winds from the English Channel. While most French filmmakers today must submit to the dictatorship of the well-wrought screenplay and the pressure to replicate the efficient but airless formula of Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall, Creton is a free man, enjoying an unusual porousness between his life and art, but never looking to his art to make a living. That freedom is evident in a body of work that, over three decades, has encompassed more than twenty-five films of varying lengths, moving back and forth between the shorts Creton directs, shoots, edits, and produces alone or with his romantic partner, the sculptor Vincent Barré, and slightly more conventional features, of which A Prince is the latest and most stunning example.

The immediate pleasure in A Prince lies in surrendering to an unpredictable experience. When I first saw it this past fall, at the New York Film Festival, an initial image of a wind-battered flower combined with a measured off-screen voice using Proust’s imperfect tense led me to adjust my nervous system to weather a kind of austere, literary French cinema that I both love and find arduously boring. Little did I know about the intergenerational fucking that lay in wait. A Prince foils assumptions by inviting bodily delights into its exquisitely poised framework. To my deep satisfaction, Creton handles nonnormative life choices and couplings with great equanimity, as if everything that occurs before his camera is as natural as the plants to which his characters tend.

Manon Schaap as Françoise Brown in A Prince. Courtesy Strand Releasing.

A Prince is a bildungsroman of sorts, in which the maladjusted twentysomething Pierre-Joseph (played at this age by Antoine Pirotte) makes a life for himself arranging bouquets, harvesting honey, tending to gardens, and loving two older men. But as with Creton’s previous features, Va, Toto! and Le bel été, A Prince is as much a group study as an individual portrait, and the story of how a rural community makes room for an outsider. Three off-screen voices move the narrative forward from as many perspectives. Along with Pierre-Joseph, we hear from his lover Alberto (Barré), a septuagenarian artist whose work occasionally takes him to the Himalayas, and from Françoise Brown (Manon Schaap), an English transplant who cuts an aristocratic figure in the Norman landscape. They reflect on their own evolution over the years, and circle around the absence of Kutta, an Indian boy whose adoption by Françoise is the catalyst to A Prince’s story. While the film’s protagonists are largely played by nonprofessional actors, including intimates of the director, such as Barré, some viewers might recognize that their off-screen voices belong to seasoned performers like Françoise Lebrun and Mathieu Amalric. This alliance of unknown bodies and familiar voices is one of the many fruitful tensions at the heart of a film that sounds like a novel and looks like life.

There is little dialogue in A Prince, and the images are elegantly composed but generally quotidian, imbued with the mellow light of a part of the world where the sun does not shine boldly: two men prune a bush, a family sits in silence, a woman boards a ferry to cross the Channel. Sometimes we see Pierre-Joseph kiss Adrien (Pierre Barray), his other older lover. Another time, both Alberto and Adrien join Pierre-Joseph to have sex in the trailer adjacent to his workplace. It’s clear from the matter-of-fact way in which Creton stages these same-sex encounters that neither provocation nor the politics of representation are on his mind. The couplings and throuplings aren’t handled casually—on the contrary, the joy in these dazzled embraces is palpable—but the way they unfold isn’t markedly different from the treatment afforded any other scene.

Vincent Barré as Alberto and Antoine Pirotte as young Pierre-Joseph in A Prince. Courtesy Strand Releasing.

I would go on to say that A Prince features neither throwaway shots nor money shots, if it weren’t for the jaw-dropping exception to the rule that occurs when the film takes a fantastical turn in its last quarter and Pierre-Joseph finally meets Kutta. Until this point, Kutta’s development has paralleled Pierre-Joseph’s, but has been relegated to third-party reports. Where Pierre-Joseph is delectably tangible, in contact with other bodies and the land, Kutta has remained unseen, a subject of speculation and a locus of fiction in a work that can feel like a beautifully crafted home movie. The film’s quietude is shattered when the adult Kutta (Chiman Dangi) presents his naked body to Pierre-Joseph, revealing outlandish, writhing genitals. This glaring intrusion of special effects is only slightly less discombobulating than it would be to see Spider-Man come swinging into a Roberto Rossellini movie, but the extraordinary thing is that it works so well. Its very garishness emphasizes the richness of the movie’s unvarnished moments and draws attention to Kutta, the prince of the title, as an object of fantasy, the legend in a film otherwise rooted in a here and now so keenly observed you can practically smell the peat. Creton’s radical break with his own aesthetic is the film’s most exhilarating evidence of his freedom.

My favorite scene features another moment of transcendence, but, unlike Kutta’s unveiling, it achieves its magic in the most elemental way. A grandfather clock ticks off-screen as the young Pierre-Joseph is reflected in a mirror lying next to Alberto and Adrien. His head rises out of the reflection and into the foreground as he exits the frame, leaving his companions in bed. When he returns into the same shot, a brief glimpse of his naked figure before he gets back under the covers suggests that his flesh has loosened and his body has become broader and hairier. The next shot confirms that the fifty-seven-year-old Creton has now replaced the younger actor in the role of Pierre-Joseph. The sequence recalls the sudden acceleration at the end of Sentimental Education, when Flaubert races through two decades in seven sentences, but here the change is written in the juxtaposition of two bodies. With this cinematic sleight of hand, Creton joins the ranks of great directors like Manoel de Oliveira and Hou Hsiao-Hsien, who have made film the art form that most eloquently records the passage of time. The moment is all the more moving in that it is the filmmaker’s own body on the line.

Vincent Barré as Alberto and Pierre Creton as older Pierre-Joseph in A Prince. Courtesy Strand Releasing.

Recognition of time’s work must of course lead to an acknowledgment of mortality, and in the film’s final act Creton stages two deaths and a vanishing, using digital effects in the last to give us his most explicit vision of human permeability to the natural world. A Prince concludes triumphantly, as Pierre-Joseph assembles all his friends, living and dead, in a cabin Creton has modeled after Edison’s Black Maria, the first film-production studio in history, for a candle-lit gathering as unworldly as it is unaffected. Returning to the origins of cinema after showing us how far it has come, Creton celebrates its impossible mission to defeat death.

Nicholas Elliott is a writer and translator living in Queens. He recently co-programmed “Never Look Away: Serge Daney’s Radical 1970s” at Film at Lincoln Center to coincide with the publication of his translation of Serge Daney’s Footlights (Semiotext(e), 2023).

In Pierre Creton’s latest film, a delightfully unpredictable tale of couplings and throuplings in rural northwest France.
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