Without consciously planning it this way, I started off this year’s Toronto International Film Festival with a pair of foreign, existential sci-fi movies back-to-back. The first was the Spanish ‘Extraterrestrial’, which I wrote about yesterday and thought was pretty great. I followed that up with ‘Carré blanc’, the debut feature from French director Jean-Baptiste Léonetti. While I didn’t love this one quite as much, it’s an interesting film that I wound up liking a lot more by the end than I expected when it started.
The title translates as “white square.” The story is set in the sort of dystopian future society where everyone has been dehumanized and a Big Brother-style faceless tyrannical system rules every aspect of people’s lives. The population of the world is steadily declining for reasons unexplained, which probably amount to apathy and a general devaluation of human life. An omnipresent droning intercom voice continually reads off the latest population statistics while encouraging people to procreate. Dead bodies are recycled into hamburger, ‘Soylent Green’ style. When a young boy attempts and fails to commit suicide, he is brutally punished and brainwashed back into obedience. He then grows up to work in the very system that oppresses him, as the pleasantly sadistic Human Resources officer for a Kafka-esque corporate bureaucracy.
The festival program guide compares the movie to Andrei Tarkovsky’s science fiction films ‘Stalker’ and ‘Solaris‘. Other obvious influences include ‘Alphaville’, ‘THX 1138‘ and, frankly, countless others. In some ways, it plays a little like ‘Delicatessen‘ or ‘Brazil‘ without the comedy. That’s not to say that there’s no humor in it, though. While this is a cold, bleak world, satirical elements are spinkled throughout. For some reason, the society is obsessed with the game of croquet (“A family sport, but physical”). Early in the film, the intercom voice implores girls of at least 14-years-old to consider artificial insemination. Later, as the population numbers decline, the age drops to 12 “without parental consent.” The cruel games that the main character plays with his employees are very darkly comic.
Honestly, the dystopian future theme feels derivative, and the overriding messages about the importance of free will and individuality are a little played out. ‘Carré blanc’ doesn’t really add anything new to the genre that hasn’t been done before. However, its stark imagery is incredibly visually striking. Like Godard’s ‘Alphaville’, Léonetti creates his future world entirely using real, existing architecture and settings. There are little to no visual effects in the film. More importantly, despite the characters being so emotionless, the story almost stealthily builds up surprising emotional power by the end.