Isild Le Besco

The Kingdom of Childhood

»Exclusion from the kingdom of childhood is sometimes experienced as exile, sometimes as an unnatural gateway to a desirable maturity. Perhaps »Demi-Tarif« bypasses this alternative because of the young age of its director,« wrote Mia Hansen-Love twenty years ago in her review of Isild Le Besco's directorial debut in Cahiers du Cinéma. Looking at her first feature film, Hansen-Løve already captured the core of Le Besco's uniqueness as a filmmaker. The instinct of this young filmmaker, who at the age of just 21 could already look back on an extraordinary career as an actress, her approach to the medium, which she does not use to tell stories but just captures them with her camera, revolves around this period of adolescence eternally. And because Hansen-Løve's suspicion that this magical difference in her narrative style could be traced back to the director's young age did not come true, we fortunately find this review of Le Besco's first film capturing the essence of her entire work in the most beautiful way: »Instinctively, Isild Le Besco also understands that one does not reveal childhood by seeking a chimeric inner world. Instead of treating it as content to be explored, she describes childhood in its relation to time. Because it is a specific experience of time, to talk about it runs the risk of explaining the secret of its unreasonably sweetness.« Mia Hansen-Løve, Cahiers du Cinéma. It seems as if the filmmaker Le Besco would not let anything get in her way, freeing herself from the dictates of time with her films - in cinema and in life. Her second feature »Charly« tells of the encounter of an adolescent boy on the run with the prostitute Charly, who is hardly older. When Charly reads from Wedekind's Spring Awakening in her small caravan, the two find moments of perfect symbiosis. The densification of the place makes it possible to overcome time.

»A boldly unpredictable artist.« Scott Foundas, Film Comment

Even as an actress, she brought an enigma to the screen with her acting and her appearance that persistently resisted any attempt at description. Benoît Jacquot, who discovered her when she was 17 and became her mentor, celebrated her as an »angelic being« and »a Chinese princess with blue eyes«. Cédric Kahn called her »unique, atypical, timeless« and Jean-Luc Godard, after seeing »Demi-Tarif«, invited her to join him in the ranks of the »solitary wolves«.

Her third feature film »Bas-Fonds« premiered in Locarno in 2010 and at the beginning of 2011 the Lincoln Film Society in New York dedicated a retrospective to her. The New York Times headlined »The Wild Child of French Cinema« and the young French filmmaker cemented her reputation as the most famous filmmaker of unknown films, a reference she used as a loving dedication to Chris Marker in the credits of »Charly« three years earlier. Much like Chris Marker's films, Isild Le Besco remains closely associated with essayistic storytelling. The form can only exist if it is undefinable. Since »Demi-Tarif«, her work as a filmmaker has revolved around this unconditional expression of a view of the world that is guided by nothing but her own gaze. The Kingdom of Childhood.

The flow of her narratives is so natural, one never believes in the existence of an underlying construction, one can never detach oneself from the narrative to realize the technical origin of the film. It is as if reason completely gives way to instinct and the beauty and fragility of her films tell of the beauty and fragility of life. Instinct is a driving force. If you manage to get into it, Isild le Besco‘s cinema reminds us of life, the moment, the sheer feeling. You‘re not in the cinema, you experience cinema.

Demi-Tarif (France 2004)

Three siblings – two girls and a boy aged seven, eight, and nine – left to their own devices in a dilapidated Parisian apartment. Each child has a different father, and their absent mother grants them unparalleled autonomy. Without rules or boundaries, they pilfer small items, revel in nocturnal escapades, ride the subway without tickets, and sneak into movie theaters to escape their growingly suspicious teacher. Le Besco's handheld camera becomes their confidante, while an enigmatic off-screen voice conjures the ecstasy of a childhood unshackled by authority. Shot on a modest digital video budget, the directorial debut caused a stir in France, prompting acclaimed filmmaker Chris Marker to liken its impact to the groundbreaking experience of encountering Jean-Luc Godard‘s »Breathless«. Isild Le Besco compellingly captures the unscripted interactions among children, with the three young actors adeptly portraying sibling dynamics of teasing, challenging, and protecting one another. In its exploration of unstructured freedom, the film resonates as a captivating and engaging work that both captures the essence of childhood and raises thought-provoking questions about the role of authority and love.

Charly (France 2007)

Fourteen-year-old Nicolas lives a loveless life with his foster parents in a rundown dwelling with no drive and no dreams. One day, he takes the old people's hidden savings and runs away. A postcard defines his destination: the sea. On the way, he meets Charly, an occasional prostitute barely older than himself. She takes him into her small caravan, where she meticulously keeps things tidy. Charly asks him to help out around the house while she goes to work. They don't talk, but he stays. When she reads him from Wedekind's Spring Awakening, a mutual understanding emerges, a moment that settles over the two and is able to stop time for a moment. The limited space creates the greatest possible freedom. The sea is a little closer. It is not only this story of initiation full of dreams and melancholy, the time when breaking rules is an essential part of learning life, Le Besco's soulful direction also merges into the liberation from the classic narrative patterns, from the conditioning of the point of view and from expectations that narrow the experience.

Bas-Fonds (France 2010)

Three girls live in a neglected apartment – two sisters and a girl who fell in love with the older sister some time ago. In the beginning, we witness their everyday lives: The petty thefts, the binge drinking, the ravioli-smeared hair. A dildo sits on the television, and grainy porn footage fills the screen. Magalie dominates the two younger girls, terrorizes them and pits them against each other. After a robbery, she accidentally shoots a young baker. This is the beginning of the end. »Bas-Fonds« is a human abyss in which the three girls exist from the very beginning of the film and from where the downward spiral leads straight into hell. The boundless and inescapable brutality of the story puts it into a tradition with »Natural Born Killers« or Virginie Despentes' »Baise-Moi«. A forceful ride through vivid images and moments filled with explosive energy culminates in a reflex against everything bourgeois and orderly and lays open the extreme dynamics of this fateful ménage à trois.

La Belle Occasion (France 2017)

The beginning is a promise. A prologue that takes us straight into a fairy tale. A group of children lie close together, almost on top of each other in a bed, while a soft-spoken nursery rhyme heralds the beginning of a magical fairytale journey. Again, it is a children's world that Isild Le Besco tells as a seductive place of longing. The siblings Ravi and Sarena live in a caravan working in a circus. Their dreary life under the tutelage of their ailing father takes an unexpected turn when Ravi meets a mute and mysterious girl. Charmed by the stable boy's charm, she follows him to his caravan, gets scared when he tries to catch her, runs away, returns to him and then invites his whole troop to stay with her in the castle, in which she lives all alone. A utopia from the children's kingdom unfolds delicately and mysteriously, culminating in a wonderfully erotic finale.

Confinés (France 2023)

The moment Emmanuel Macron announces the coronavirus lockdown in a video speech hits Zina and her siblings like a punch in the gut. They are not only torn from their usual everyday life, but they are now also prisoners of their father, who tends to break out in violence. The loud, often violent arguments between their parents are nothing new to them. But the lockdown leaves them constantly at the mercy of their father's tyranny. There are no more hours of safety. Much has been reported about the rise in domestic violence during the years of the Corona epidemic. But the claustrophobic imagery in which Isild le Besco evokes a sense of utter abandonment makes all that fade away. Still, Le Besco's drama does not only develop a physical urgency; it always finds poetic moments and instants of almost paradisiacal happiness. From them grows a hope that only great art can convey.