Call Nathan Ambrosioni a wunderkind. By the time he was 16, the young filmmaker had already written, starred in and directed two impressive horror features, Hostile and Therapy. His latest drama, Paper Flags, sees the filmmaker, now 19, branch out. Aside from smartly not casting himself as one of the leads, he strays away from schlock, delivering a relatively straightforward, robust drama of familial bonds, acutely-observed and impressively acted – and made with the assurance of someone twice his age. At this rate, Nathan’s work will be winning awards in Cannes in no time.
Having spent 12 years in prison, Paper Flags’ protagonist, Vincent (Guillaume Gouix), comes to stay with his younger sister, Charlie (Noémie Merlant). “After the first seven years you don’t feel much,” Vincent tells her about being locked away. “After ten, even less.” A broke graphic artist and cashier at the local grocery store, Charlie lives in an empty house with “drab furniture,” “like it doesn’t belong to anyone.” She makes it clear to Vincent that he needs to find gainful employment if he wants to keep staying with her.
“Haunted by his past, Vincent tries to enjoy freedom, jogging through the countryside and playing basketball with the locals…”
Haunted by his past, Vincent tries to enjoy freedom, jogging through the countryside and playing basketball with the locals. Prone to wild temper swings, he scares Charlie, yet he also loves her unconditionally. They reminisce about their past. She patiently guides him through the irritating job application process, and when he finally lands one, he gradually assumes the caretaker role. An unexpected visitor on Charlie’s birthday sends emotions spiraling out of control.
Guillaume Gouix effectively conveys the disconnection Vincent feels to the world, to his own feelings. When he unleashes bouts of fury, you understand what’s spawned them. The chemistry between the two leads sparks and goes a long way in anchoring the film in real tenderness, emphasized through the smallest of gestures and glances. Noémie Merlant is a young actress to watch, providing a nuanced performance, particularly in the last, tender scene involving a phone call in a car.
“…the filmmaker deftly handles the emotional ups and downs of intensely-charged sequences.”
Ambrosioni captures some terrific little moments, such as Vincent’s confusion at a couple taking a selfie, his own cellphone being 12 years old. Whether it’s Vincent’s outburst at a restaurant or Charlie being embarrassed by him at a bar, the filmmaker deftly handles the emotional ups and downs of intensely-charged sequences. Raphaël Vandenbussche’s cinematography basks the majority of Paper Flags in orange, amber and brown hues, complementing its despondent-but-warm mood.
Ambrosioni’s film is about freedom and the means of attaining it, and about kindness and familial bonds. Sure, it may not be as deeply profound as it set out to be, but the mere fact that this low-key drama brings to mind the Dardenne brothers’ (or Ken Loach’s) probing studies of the lower-middle classes makes the fact that a teenager directed it that much more stunning. Nathan is undoubtedly heading in the right direction.
Paper Flags (2018) Written and Directed by Nathan Ambrosioni. Starring Noémie Merlant, Guillaume Gouix, Alysson Paradis, Sébastien Houbani, Jérôme Kircher. Paper Flag screened at the 2019 San Francisco International Film Festival.
8 out of 10