‘Where Have All The Flowers Gone?’
I distinctly recall the melody of that legendary folk ditty filtering through my head as I first staggered out of a cinema that had been showing Jean-Baptiste Léonetti’s debut feature film Carré blanc, a chilling, dystopian science-fiction thriller unveiled in the Vanguard series during the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival. It seemed, at the time, and now even in retrospect, a perfectly reasonable piece of music to dance across my cerebellum – on loop, no less.
The classic song, first written in 1955 and slightly rewritten about 10 years later to include additional lyrics to comment specifically on the Vietnam War, is a piece imbued with both sentiment and the sadness of longing. It laments the loss of flowers; young girls, young boys, soldiers and graveyards – with the latter, of course, giving way to the flowers that appeared to have gone missing in the first place.
With apologies to Pete Seeger and Joe Hickerson, the writers of the much-covered/adapted folk song, I recall my own added verse that asked the following question:
‘Where have all the people gone?’
It seemed something worth lamenting after seeing Léonetti’s film, which conjures up a world as bereft of people in a literal sense, as in the figurative, since ‘the people’ are either being interrogated or desperately going about their business in the fervent hope that they will not be interrogated.
Such is the world of Carré blanc, the tale of Philippe (Sami Bouajila) and Marie (Julie Gayet), a couple who grew up together in a state orphanage and who eventually married. They live in a stark, often silent corporate world bereft of any vibrant colour and emotion. Muzak constantly lulls the masses and is only punctuated by announcements occasionally calling for state-controlled procreation and, most curiously, promoting the game of croquet – the one and only state-sanctioned sport.
Philippe is a most valued lackey of the state. He is an interrogator-cum-indoctrinator and he’s very good at his job. In fact, with each passing day, he is getting better and better at it. Marie, on the other hand, is withdrawing deeper and deeper into a cocoon as the love she once felt for Philippe transforms into indifference. In this world, hatred, sadness or any manner of bitterness are luxuries. They’re tangible feelings that the rulers would never tolerate, and are punished with death.
The goal of the Brave New World that Léonetti presents appears to be little more than indifference, and as such it’s especially important to make note of the astounding score by Evgueni Galperine – one that has none of the sentiment of songs like the aforementioned Seeger folk song, nor is it like the horrendously bombastic ‘action’ scores so prevalent in contemporary science fiction films, with Michael Giacchino’s pounding notes in the J. J. Abrams reboots of Star Trek, or the wham-bam-in-your-face styling of Ryan Amon’s Elysium score and, lest we forget, any of John Williams’s sweeping orchestral noodlings in George Lucas’s Star Wars space operas.
Watch the trailer for Carré blanc:
If anything, Galperine successfully roots his music in a spare blend of electronic soundscape, eerie source music and very light orchestral background. In fact, it’s sometimes impossible to distinguish between score and sound design – something that was so integral to dystopian science fiction films of the 1970s, most notably, the creepy crawly work of Denny Zeitlin in Philip Kaufman’s immortal remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Both the Galperine score and the movie itself hark back to great 1970s’ science-fiction film classics, like The Terminal Man (Mike Hodges), Colossus: The Forbin Project (Joseph Sargent), A Boy and His Dog (L. Q. Jones) and THX 1138 (George Lucas), in addition to Kaufman’s terrific picture – when the genre was thankfully bereft of light sabres, Wookies and Jabba the Hut – when it was actually about something.
Galperine’s score, however, does not – in any way, shape or form – contribute to a retro quality. If anything, the film feels rooted firmly in a future not all that removed from our current existence. Every so often, Galperine will hit in an extended synth note, which will subtly blend into another and yet another and symbiotically blend with both the narrative and visuals to etch the emotional lives of the characters. This use of music to reflect emotion on screen rather than as a tool to yank emotion from the audience is completely and wholly modern. If there’s a connection between the scores of yore and Galperine’s work, it’s that it creates under- and overtones that are as universal as the 70s pictures.
The aforementioned Hodges, Sargent, Jones, Lucas and Kaufman pictures have not actually dated – certainly not in terms of the sophistication of the filmmaking and the fact that any single one of them feels as ‘modern’ as Carré blanc. In that sense, Léonetti’s film could easily have been made – as is – in the 1970s. Carré blanc shares a specific approach with past work to a genre that can, perhaps more than any other, effect true analysis and possibly even change, though there is nothing at all retro about the picture – no obvious post-modernist nods here. It is completely unto itself. Carré blanc is fresh, hip, vibrant and vital – certainly as much as the pictures noted above were and most importantly are.
A great deal of the picture’s success is, I think, owing to Galperine’s score. The electronic score proper, the pieces of music that feel like soundscape and, most evocatively, the horrendously, sickeningly and mind alteringly vapid Muzak that is constantly piped in through loudspeakers (reminiscent of the very thing that keeps A Boy and His Dog so universal) contribute to the all-important timeless quality of great science fiction in the cinema. I’m reminded of how Stanley Kubrick and Norman Jewison kept 2001 and Rollerball universal by using classical music. They used an aural underscore from the past to create timelessness. Galperine and the various composers of the 1970s sci-fi classics create electronic beds that are as contemporary as they are ‘futuristic’.
Galperine creates two important and subtle beds of music that recur throughout the film. One is a two-note hit (one low, one high – and occasionally, one high and one low) which, amid the other sounds and music layered underneath (or on top), creates a portent that reflects the emotional states of the characters. Even more evocative is the use of three notes signalling a lullaby either cut short or gone wrong, to reflect a long-lost childhood innocence, which, most importantly reflects long-lost innocence – period.
It’s this subtle and intelligent use of music that goes so far in assisting Léonetti in making what is easily the finest dystopian vision of the future to be etched upon celluloid since the 1970s. I’d go so far as to suggest that one could programme a film series entitled ‘Science Fiction of the 70s’ and just slip in Carré blanc, or, for that matter, a series entitled ‘Science Fiction: Contemporary Visions of Dystopia’ with the 1970s titles slipped in with Carré blanc, and audiences (most of them, frankly, and perhaps even sadly) would swallow it hook, line and sinker.
Thematically and/or emotionally, the thing that ties all of these films together is the notion of love being threatened by the state and/or a New World Order. God knows, in the case of Carré blanc, there can be little doubt that a romantic mood would indeed be at peril from the Muzak, along with monotone appeals from an announcer reminding the couples of the world that procreation is a privilege, not a right, but that some have indeed earned the right to procreate and as such, have a duty to do so.
Where, oh where, have all the flowers gone, indeed. Or, in the words of another timeless folk song from Zager and Evans: ‘In the year 2525, if Man is still alive…’