Mouton presents a French coastal town as a fully realized universe that feels as if it lives beyond the confines of the screen. In their remarkable debut, Gilles Deroo and Marianne Pistone structure a multifaceted narrative around the minutiae of daily life, where a reflexive quality turns even the most everyday routines into intimate life-affirming moments. The filmmakers create an atmosphere where sights unseen and sounds unheard interconnect with the action presented on screen; contextual scenes are excised through the frequent use of elliptical fade-outs, which, in a nod to the ocean setting, suggest the ebb and flow of a tidal pool of memories.
A teenager nicknamed Mouton (David Merabet) is shown living in the town of Courseulles-sur-Mer soon after his alcoholic mother is deemed unfit to care for him. The young man’s story, as he works in the kitchen of a local restaurant, only occupies the first half of the film; after a shockingly random and brutal act of violence directed at him during a celebration (in a fine instance of Bressonian “doubling,” the attack is shown in whole immediately after it’s been told through voiceover), the filmmakers disregard any previous fidelity to a singular narrative by removing Mouton from the picture, then shifting directions to jump between various denizens of the town.
Deroo and Pistone signal this shift through delicately calibrated compositions during the film’s first half: Background activity, usually framed within doorways or windows, is almost constantly occurring behind Mouton’s foregrounded action. These private moments become entirely different stories that, while they go completely unnoticed by the teen (whose name, incidentally, translates to Sheep), still form the prismatic nature of the community; to turn a corner in this world, it seems, is to stumble upon a narrative already in progress, as other people live their lives.
In fact, “They Live the Rest of Their Lives” is the intertitle that separates the film’s two halves, a statement that evokes the sublime sense of equality toward the townspeople that’s felt through Mouton’s objective camerawork. Deroo and Pistone present each citizen of Courseulles-sur-Mer with the same fairness, never assigning personal sentiments on them; even Mouton’s attacker, arguably the film’s most inhumane, is allowed to speak at length of his undying regret over his actions (though his appearance is never shown). This sequence addresses, per the randomness of the attacker’s act, that everyone is capable of behaviors both good and bad, but the directors go further by blurring the distinction between the two: A man named Mimi abandons a dog on a beach, but after we witness the harsh conditions of the kennel he works at, it’s left to us to determine if the animal’s desertion is cruel or an act of grace.
But the “They” in the intertitle also refers to Courseulles-sur-Mer’s numerous animals, which are captured in the same objective manner as the residents in order emphasize the kinship between beings. Mouton seems adrift in town, not unlike the homeless dog that stalks the restaurant he works at; the crush of partygoers at the St. Anne Festival synch with a dense flock of seagulls circling around the beach; people are given and share food like the cats Mouton is asked to care for. And the filmmakers encapsulate this idea in a haunting and indelible sex scene devoid of titillation: Mouton has moved on from making out with his new girlfriend to suckling on her breast, and while the young man’s inexperience is humorously awkward, the image ultimately suggests a nursing infant animal. A more devastating reading could also point to Mouton’s longing for a maternal figure after he was prematurely separated from his mother.
Though the residents of the town rarely acknowledge it, Mouton’s absence looms large over their lives by film’s end. As in life, people come and go without warning or resolution in Mouton, living on as either memories or photographs. It’s fitting, then, that the film ends on a welcoming antique postcard of Courseulles-sur-Mer, as the picture embodies more of state of mind than a real place; time will progress, and this version of the town will, like Mouton, fade from the thoughts of its inhabitants. As this achingly beautiful film articulates, it’s the offhand expressions and actions arising from the ordinary that forms the fabric of a community—of life simply going on.