AF French Film Festival Review: Tran Anh Hung’s Eternity (France, 2016) is a tone poem brought to life

Though I am Vietnamese, because I was raised in Australia for all of my life, I never really experienced much of Vietnamese culture. However, there were some films that I had watched that had always stuck with me, and those were the works of Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung.

Showing the true beauty in the slices of life in Vietnam, his works were both amazing on a visual as well as an aural level. Immigrating to France at a young age, he clearly took to the customs of the country as well as its film-making style.

In other words, his films were always graceful and soothing, even during moments of realism and nihilism. Famous examples are The Scent of the Green Papaya, Cyclo and Norwegian Wood. You can’t dislike a man that introduced to you critically acclaimed Hong Kong actor Tony Leung Chiu-wai, can you?

So when I heard that he was making his first French-language film with three of the best actresses in all of France, I was excited beyond belief. Counting the fact that this was the first film of Tran‘s that I have see on the big screen, did the film meet my expectations?

Spanning through a century, showing two generations of a family, the film starts off following Valentine (Audrey Tautou) and her life, involving her husband Jules (Arieh Worthalter) and her children, including Henri (later played by Jeremie Renier).

After finding Jules and giving birth to more than half a dozen children, Valentine then watches as nearly all of them die untimely deaths of unspecified illnesses or leaving the family home, at which point the focus shifts to Valentine’s daughter-in-law Mathilde (Melanie Laurent), who is married to Henri, being the first generation to continue the bloodline. The story also spans on to Mathilde’s childhood friend, Gabrielle (Berenice Bejo) and her husband Charles (Pierre Deladonchamps), whom both couples live comfortably as they raise their children together.

As you may have assumed from the synopsis, the film does not have a plot. But those who are accustomed to Tran‘s films will expect this. His catalogue of films have all been in service of mood and atmosphere and thanks to Tran‘s sheer skill, Mark Lee Ping-bing‘s stellar cinematography and great musical choices, supervised by Elise Luguern, Eternity is truly a tone poem brought to life.

The actresses rely more on their physical acting rather than their dialogue delivery, and they all do very well. Audrey Tautou makes the most out of her matriarch role as she convincingly carries the emotional turmoil of her character with nary a word of dialogue.

Melanie Laurent is the most likable and vibrant out of the three, as she gracefully lights up the screen with hope and optimism as soon as she appears on-screen. Berenice Bejo is the tempered and taciturn of the three and she makes a good impression, as her interactions with Laurent are quite good.

And of course, what would a Tran Anh Hung film be without the director’s muse (and wife) Tran Nu Yan Khe, who not only serves as the narrator of the film (who thankfully adds a sense of pragmatism to the proceedings), but is also the art director of the film.

The film deals with death and birth in a way that is quite poignant as well as illuminating. Scenes of the children, either through birth and death, for the most part, emotionally hit their mark. But due to the numerous times that we go through, the message that Tran wants to show the audience is clear: Birth is a miracle no matter how many times we see it and death is, deep down, meaningless no matter many times it happens and hits us. It really is a simple message, but a profound one nonetheless.

And while the film certainly accomplishes what it aims for, viewers who are looking for something else like a plot or conventional narrative will be bored. The film would probably be defined as “installation art”, along the lines of films of Hou Hsiao-hsien. Not to mention the languid pacing, the few sets and locations and the repetitious events.

But for those who are initiated to Tran‘s body of work and those who are willing to step outside the norm of conventional film-making may find Eternity a sensual delight that casts a spell of wonder and poignancy that one would definitely appreciate.

Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Eternity is screening around Australia as part of the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival. For tickets and more details head HERE.