A Literate Yet Oblique Gay French Drama

The world of Pierre Creton’s “A Prince” is lush and verdant. His protagonist is a gardener’s apprentice whose penchant for taming and nurturing the wilderness around him is only matched by the latent eroticism he finds in various older men he comes to be involved with. Mostly driven by voiceover narration meant to ground and disorient you in equal measure, “A Prince” is a study in the stories we keep from one another and the ones we tell ourselves. Creton’s vision of unruly desires in the French countryside is literate and oblique perhaps to a fault, its erotic sensibility feeling more intellectual than visceral.

The first line in Creton’s film, delivered in voiceover as images of gardening take up the screen, feels like a deferred promise: “The story really began when Kutta arrived,” we’re told by Françoise (who’ll be played by Manon Schaap but whose narration is voiced by Françoise Lebrun). You’d imagine then that this most “delicate child,” who’s been adopted by Françoise, would be the central figure in “A Prince.” And yet, audiences only get to meet Kutta as an adult more than an a hour into the film, once Creton flash-forwards four decades into the future and they find the filmmaker taking over the role of the one character who actually anchors the film: Pierre-Joseph, who’s played as a young man by Antoine Pirotte (and voiced by Grégory Gadebois).

As even that brief description of the cast ensemble of “A Prince” makes clear, Creton has chosen to fracture the trio of characters who, together, narrate this dreamlike tale. For in addition to hearing about Kutta from Françoise, and learning about what first drove Pierre-Joseph to become a gardener apprentice, we also hear from his botanist teacher, Alberto (Vincent Barré, voiced by Mathieu Amalric).

The narrations, which are often accompanied by gorgeously shot if intentionally unrelated images (as Kutta is described, the film shows Françoise reading on a ferry, featuring images of the ocean behind her), insist on a stark juxtaposition between what’s seen and what’s heard. There is a push toward capturing the interiority of these characters and to remind us, time and time again, that their outward selves may well never be as nakedly readable as that which we’re listening to.

That is certainly the case with Pierre-Joseph, who remains a cipher of a character throughout. In the scenes where he interacts with his classmates, his aging parent and later with his employer, Pirotte plays the young man like a wallflower whose shyness feels somewhat crippling. Yet his inner life, as captured by his voiceover narration, reveals a whole new layer to this seemingly quiet and unassuming young man.

“Sometimes I found my cousin there, and we made love,” he confesses when describing his father’s organized hunting trips, going on to share even more titillating details. Because of Pierre-Joseph’s narration, a seemingly innocuous moment shared between two men whose hands brush against one another as they sop up their bread on a shared plate, becomes weighted with desire. It’s in moments like those that Creton’s directorial choices most make sense, where it feels like he’s constantly excavating a not-so-hidden erotic sensibility.

Pierre-Joseph is drawn to older men, to their tender touch and their generous spirit. Soon, he develops a close-knit relationship with two of them, who in turn serve as fellow collaborators on a film about botany. Their quiet moments of intimacy blend in with their honest work in the fields and on their film together. Eventually, though, the film swerves into a final act where Pierre-Joseph will come face to face with Kutta. He’s heard plenty about the adopted child from abroad who is now an older man seemingly interested in hiring a gardener. Except as it soon becomes clear, this meeting will upend much of what we know about both men and even what we’ve come to expect about Creton’s oneiric if otherwise quite grounded drama.

Whether the one eyebrow raising shot Creton orchestrates in this final meeting merely shocks you or outright makes you wonder why this quiet if talky film needed to arrive at such an outlandish image is, arguably, what makes “A Prince” such a difficult project to break down. Beautifully shot and quite cleverly structured — not to mention quite naturalistic in its depiction of a pastoral world view (Schaap, who playes Françoise in the film, is a client of the filmmaker, whose garden Creton tends to) — “A Prince” demands to be experienced, to be enjoyed, for its shaggy narrative leaps and narrated morsels of insight to be nurtured not unlike the very horticulture which it so lovingly captures.

If it all doesn’t quite gel together in the end, one gets the feeling that such fissures are by design, and so they feel less like errors in judgment than intentional challenges Creton places squarely in front of his audience, beckoning them into a different kind of world, a different kind of film.

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