Credit: Locarno Film Festival
by Daniel Gorman Featured Film

Camping du Lac — Eléonore Saintagnan [SSIFF ’23 Review]

September 30, 2023

An artist and documentary filmmaker, Eléonore Saintagnan makes her feature debut with Camping du Lac, although such a biographical description does little to adequately describe the movie’s intoxicating tapestry of quirky storytelling traditions and “lightness,” in the Milan Kundera sense of the word. It’s a small, unassuming film that only gradually reveals itself, changing shape from quirky, fish-out-of-water comedy to lovely eulogy for old-fashioned notions of community and communion with the natural world. Camping du Lac functions like a winding, even meandering, tall-tale made out of non-sequiturs and tangents that eventually accumulate into something much larger than the sum of the film’s (very charming) parts. 

It’s a brief film with an inauspicious beginning; Saintagnan (playing a version of herself, one supposes) has decided that she must see the ocean. And so she sets off in her car, only for it to break down in the middle of Brittany, in the northwest of France. She narrates her own adventures in a sort of deadpan monotone, describing the people she meets as she hitches a ride with a farmer while her car is towed to the local garage. The mechanic says it will take several days to fix the car, but that Eléonore is welcome to stay at the local trailer park. It’s located on the banks of Guerledan Lake, and home to an odd assortment of local eccentrics. And so, Eléonore is thrust into this new but not unwelcoming environment; the film doesn’t so much chronicle the various denizens of the park as it simply peeks into their lives, each individual a tantalizing narrative thread that could conceivably anchor a different film. 

Visiting the local church, she hears the story of Saint Corentin, who stayed alive by taking one piece of flesh from the same fish day after day, which in turn was miraculously made whole when it was released back into the water. The fish eventually grew to an enormous size and, as the story goes, now roams the lake. This tale — part religious parable, part urban legend — becomes the main narrative thread by which Eléonore hangs her various observations, as she watches the locals and hikes through the woods. Eventually, believing the lake has magical properties of some kind, people begin taking water from it. It functions something like a low-key version of Jessica Hausner’s Lourdes, but as the water levels drop to dangerously low levels, ecological disaster looms on the horizon. By the time Saintagnan shows a giant fish stranded in the muddy shores of the now-receded lake, any lines between fantasy and reality are blurred to the point of meaninglessness.

Saintagnan clearly isn’t concerned about genre classification, as she steamrolls her way through different modes in search of something more obscure, but also more ecstatic. Some reviews have likened her style to that of Agnès Varda’s, an apt enough comparison given Camping du Lac’s gentle tone and easy-going fascination with local faces. But there’s a certain mystery here, as well: Saintagnan summons Apichatpong Weerasethakul in the sense that the lake and surrounding woods evoke a kind of mythopoetic playground of folklore — at one point she spies on a woman swimming with fishes while bringing herself to orgasm, a sequence destined to be compared to a similar one in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Notions of time break down and become diffuse; as Eléonore settles in and meets more and more people, it becomes unclear how long she has actually been at the trailer park, and eventually she decides that she must sell her car and stay in this wonderfully odd place. Let the mystery in, kick back and stay awhile: the water is great.

Published as part of San Sebastián Film Festival 2023: Dispatch 2.