Credit: FIDMarseille
by Chris Cassingham Featured Film

7 Walks with Mark Brown — Pierre Creton, Vincent Barré [FIDMarseille ’24 Review]

July 10, 2024

Pierre Creton and Vincent Barré have amassed a remarkable body of work, and “body” is certainly an apt descriptor. Their intimate and playful films are concerned with social interactions and the world surrounding them; last year in Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight, Creton premiered Un Prince, which seemed like a summation of all these ideas: a years-long portrait of a young botanist, his romantic bonds, and his artistic blossoming. This year, at FIDMarseille, Creton and his long-time creative partner, Barré, are back with a new film, 7 Walks With Mark Brown.

7 Walks could be glibly described as the ultimate incarnation of the “the setup/the shot” format popularized on TikTok, a potentially blunt descriptor, but the strategy employed here is considered and delicate. The first part of the film, called “The Shooting,” documents seven excursions through the Pays-des-Caux under the guidance of Mark Brown, a paleobotanist in search of the coastal region’s endemic plants. In seven short segments, shot digitally with a familiar, documentary-like visual language, we see Brown in his element, identifying plant after plant, describing their etymology, the soil qualities best suited for growth, their history in the region, and detailed descriptions of their pollination strategies. He talks about far too many things to keep track of, but the joy of the film can be derived from his repetition, or perhaps, more generously phrased, found in his process: of seeing, identifying, explicating, connecting, and feeling. Creton accomplished a similar feat in Un Prince, where time in the presence of a young man learning his craft and finding his passion, no matter how mannered the images or the dialogue, elicited an almost rapturous attention from the viewer. Brown even moves himself to tears on occasion, either because a certain plant has special qualities he likes, has endured some kind of trauma, or has simply persevered for hundreds of millions of years. It doesn’t take much to spark Brown’s enthusiasm, or for us to realize we’re in the midst of a man’s life’s work, the reflection of his deepest passions. Getting caught up in Brown’s love of plants is one of 7 Walks’ great pleasures, and a key to its success.

In “The Shooting,” Creton and Barre are as careful in depicting the filming of Brown’s walks as they are with filming Brown’s walk. Throughout, we see Creton and Barre’s team of filmmakers at work. As the sound recordist, note-takers, assistants, 16mm camera operator (who some viewers may recognize as the lead character, Pierre-Joseph, in Un Prince), and Barre himself weave in and out of frame, always in conversation with Brown, we bear witness to simultaneous processes. Around the film’s halfway point, the camera operator sets up the final shot. Until this point, we’ve had a pretty good idea of what Brown has been showing the crew, despite never really seeing direct images of the plants. They’ve always been half-shots, mediated in some way by distance, angle, or shadow, supplemented, mostly, by Brown’s own words. The final shot, however, is deliberately hidden from our view. Brown, Barre, and the rest of the crew all look down at the ground as Brown describes the plant, but we never see it. The film flutters through the camera until it runs out, an internal clock that no one else sees stops itself; the end is a surprise, yet somehow unceremonious. No one shouts, “Cut!” That end, the hard stop, signals the end of the Brown’s walk in nature, and the end of the shoot. And just as wrapping a film is emotional for the filmmakers, so too is the end of a walk for Brown. Tears and embraces commemorate two jobs well done.

Depending on how you feel, there’s a Hitchcockian or Lubitschian tension to the final setup, priming us for a payoff in the second half, called “The Herbarium.” It’s essentially the finished product of the documented seven walks, a series of plant-based tableau; only the gentle breeze disrupts, or enhances, the tranquility of the lush 16mm imagery. The transformation in image quality is shocking, and renders each plant under an almost alien glow. Given the stage on their own, these instances of flora are stoic figures, posing as if they were models for a magazine cover.

Brown’s voice appears again, studio-bound, quiet and intimate, remarking on the images through an improvised commentary that wavers somewhere between science and poetry. There isn’t the same emotional fluctuation we saw in “The Shooting,” but there is, nevertheless, a poignant, reflective quality in his voice. The sequence of images is in line with the sequence of the seven walks, and each plant is a revelation. All leading up to the final plant, its presence, so far, made all the more tantalizing through its absence. Brown’s commentary brushes up against an impatient desire to see the great final plant, the one that was filmed with so much care and anticipation. The payoff isn’t grand or shocking. It isn’t even all that impressive. It’s a lovely plant with long, dark green leaves and small, yellowish, budding flowers. The sun casts the central stalks in a pleasing glow, and the wind rocks them gently. In the interest of staying on theme, the emotional release is more Lubitschian than Hitchockian. It’s romantic, subtle, almost cheekily shy. Think of Tony meeting Mrs. Barker after he discovers she’s Angel in Angel, not the belt mix-up in The Merry Widow. The reveal has happened, you’re happy to have seen it. But maybe you haven’t let all the air out of your lungs.

Published as part of FIDMarseille 2024 — Dispatch 3.