TIFF 2010: Black Ocean

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Black Ocean
Directed by Marion Hänsel

Though its aftertitles detailing the history of French nuke experiments suggest otherwise, writer/director Marion Hänsel’s Black Ocean is not a political treatise or a history lesson, instead taking advantage of the remote, isolated environments in which the experimentation took place – as well as the monumental imagery of the act itself – in order to communicate a more universal story about the power of awe.

Ocean principally follows three young sailors (Romain David, Adrien Jolivet, Nicolas Robin) on a French naval vessel in 1972, who are on course for an unknown destination in order to help carry out the bomb tests they’ve yet to personally witness. The film is essentially divided into two parts: before and after the blast. Before the blast, we spend a lot of time quietly observing the sometimes-friendly, sometimes-oppositional patter and play between the youngsters as they try to stay awake through interminable watch shifts and quietly ponder the lives they left behind.

Maybe a little too quietly – Hänsel’s sailors occasionally get mildly rowdy, but too frequently succumb to long bouts of looking solemnly into the distance, at least in the first half of the film. There’s also a naggingly obvious bit of backstory whose significance is too-often underlined involving a treacherous childhood walk through a river and a buried message. For the most part, however, Hänsel keeps things refreshingly unfettered, with the most loaded relationship in the film belonging to one of the young men and the bright-eyed dog who follows him around.

Once the bomb hits, Ocean necessarily shifts gears and turns into a somber meditation on what it is to witness an event that irrevocably shifts your understanding of the world. It’s this difficult-to-depict circumstance that Hänsel mostly succeeds in evoking in the viewer thanks to the effectively low-key performances, mostly efficient writing and stunning cinematography. Despite a late-film lapse into excess sentimentality (thanks to unnecessary use of voiceover-from-the-future), and the unnecessary “political statement” packaging, Black Ocean is transportive and touching.

Simon Howell

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