As we brace ourselves for an inevitable onslaught of dispiriting film programming aimed to address the pandemic and its impact, one refreshing take on our present circumstance had its world premiere last weekend at the 20th annual Tribeca Film Festival.
Roaring 20’s, the sophomore feature from French director Elisabeth Vogler, follows Parisians over the course of one afternoon on an excursion through the city. The film was shot in one continuous take, recording snippets of conversation that pass between friends and strangers. Filmed in 2020 right after Paris’s lockdown was lifted, Roaring 20’s is a tribute to the public spaces we lost access to this past year, those which are so integral to our existence as social beings.
It was a wonder to watch an experimental one-take rarely fatigue, due to Vogler’s inventive choreography and calculated camera movements, a combination which served to shift perspective and heighten a scene’s emotionality. In the opening sequence the camera trails a pair of strangers, at once quickening pace to reach a profile pov – much like a third companion racing to keep up with their friends. The majority of the film shoots head-on, and this wide-angle positioning enhances the viewer’s spatial awareness. Our gaze is as much fixed on the characters as it is the environments they migrate through. Vogler shapes the narrative through body language, varying close-up shots that serve to magnify a character’s spontaneous reactions, from momentary anxiety to convulsive laughter, and back again. The camera releases at distance only when characters are settled into synchronized movement and deeply engaged in dialogue. From this release comes a certain emphasis on the sacredness of socialization – we’re witnessing a revival. The camera is merely a conduit for the city’s projected stream of consciousness, one that welcomes interruption from the intimacy of conversation. Shot in six takes with twenty-four actors and sixteen crew members, the film constitutes a literal stripping down, portraying only what’s necessary; in this post-pandemic moment, it’s the physical presence of a friend at your side, the brush of a stranger passing by.
This level of intimacy bolsters the film’s execution of imitating real life, leading the viewer as one would in a dance. Moreover, the city’s soundscape is impressively wielded to amplify the viewing experience. Composer Jean-Charles Bastion, who also scored Vogler’s first feature Paris Is Us, opted for vocal harmony arrangements and standalone instrumental tracks. Paired with chaotic scenes of city life, the soundtrack has a calming, time-stopping effect. From the opening scene on, ambient urban noise fills in with color foregrounded character dialogue – a dialogue that offers its own creative range, rambling between serious philosophical appeals (artists considering the color black and its political implications) to playful exchanges (friends discussing the intricacies of porn). Each sequence reinforces the notion that humans sustain a depth of curiosity even in the most demoralizing of times. They also remind us not to take ourselves too seriously.
There’s no closure to the character’s stories, an intentional lapse perhaps to signal the breadth of possibilities on the horizon. In one particularly funny scene a runaway bride, on her quest to find pot, comes upon a seemingly abandoned baby on the sidewalk. They start up a chat. As quickly as we’re introduced to this unlikely duo, the baby is whisked away and the woman hitchhikes a ride. This marvelously absurd scene swiftly transitions to the real pinnacle of the film, wherein the camera trails a motorcycle for a thrilling, three-minute tour through the city; coupled with a soft harmonic choir, we’re lulled into a trance. In all its curbside chaos, this scene radiates peace, allowing viewers to feel as if we’re floating along for the ride.
And we keep floating, past recognizable markers of Paris life; originating in the heart of the city, the Louvre, the film meanders along the banks of the Seine, through alleys, passing outdoor cafes with throngs of smoke and chatter, up winding curbs of suburban sidewalks. In juxtaposing a journey across miles of terrain with merely fragments of conversation, the film condenses time and space. In an early sequence, as a woman travels to meet her brother, she reflects on the comfort felt in his presence: “When we were younger a minute lasted an hour.” A nostalgia we can all relate to. While our minds might grapple with how to move on from pandemic life, Vogler expresses the ease at which our bodies make the first step, operating with the sort of muscle memory that comes naturally when getting back on a bike from a long hiatus.
I had few qualms about the film; the first – its slightly over-manicured approach to the crisp and bright costuming that seemed more fitting for the stage. Certain stretches of dialogue also subtracted from the story’s credibility, as if the writers were eager to make us hyper aware of our role as viewers. While conversation flowed authentically, words, more often than not, landed tell vs. show. Cheeky lines teased to break the fourth wall – from the first man we meet, as he attempts to hypnotize a companion: “Every noise from the city is taking you to a different state.” Even a pair’s discussion on porn strains to unlock cinematic meaning: “You’re inviting the camera into the story…in the moment I enjoy myself. But I know I’m living a moment like it’s already a memory. Like a moment that will touch me later.” Special films entrust an audience with the competence to perceive a story’s essence; here we’re explicitly educated on a scene’s deeper meaning, constantly reminded of the camera’s command. “The city is like an open air cinema” one character points out as he leads his friend on a historical tour through the neighborhood of Belleville. I felt most uneasy about the final sequence, as it felt exorbitant and antithetical to the film’s goal of imitating real life. That being said, I’ll give the film credit for capturing realistic scenes usually ignored in contemporary cinema, namely truthful portrayals of our addictive relationship to technology. In one long sequence we watch as a group stares at a cell phone game of chess. I also appreciated that you don’t see a mask until minute twenty-six, only as characters descend into the subway – one element either refreshingly unrealistic or refreshingly French.
The film’s greatest strength lay in the vigor and variation of character exchanges. It felt like accompanying a friend on a long power walk, intoxicated by the surrounding urban energy as you listened to their impressive rambling. I walked away feeling energized and hopeful. Yet I believe the film’s ultimate feat is its lean production, one that brought an element of uninhibited vitality to the viewing experience. The film was financed on a micro-budget and utilized both professional and unprofessional actors. Just how the pandemic has drastically changed corporate ways of working, it’s forced filmmakers to approach projects with resourceful creativity and flexibility. With Roaring 20’s, Vogler and crew proved they can do it on the big stage with little means. I’m excited to see what this cohort can execute with a big budget opportunity – they’ve already proved their potential is limitless.
“Roaring 20’s” is streaming virtually through the Tribeca Film Festival through June 23rd EST. It was awarded the jury prize for Best Cinematography in an International Narrative Feature Film.