Less a biography than a series of freeform riffs, The Double Steps follows the artist-writer Francois Augiéras throughout the northwest African deserts of Mali as he’s thrown out of the military only to eventually fall in with a group of traveling bandits. Along the way, Augiéras begins to develop his talents as a painter of evocative charcoal images that will result in his creation of an underground desert “Sistine Chapel,” which will be the subject of intense speculation among a group of researchers and admirers years later. Miquel Barceló, one of Spain’s leading contemporary artists, can be seen throughout the film as the man to finally discover Augiéras’s lost work, which he goes about resurrecting from the significant damage wrought upon it by time and termites.
In real life, Augiéras was American-born of French/Polish descent, a gay man known for producing work of forceful sexual directness. In The Double Steps, he’s is played by Bokar Dembele, a strapping young black man who’s probably meant to embody Augiéras’s ideal fantasy avatar. True to the title, which refers to a method of eluding pursuers by retracing your steps, the film is rife with double and triple symbols, portentous metaphors, and long moments that seem to exist, at times uncomfortably, for their own isolated sake.
The Double Steps doesn’t provide much literal detail of Augiéras’s life, and it clearly isn’t meant to. Director Isaki Lacuesta is more concerned with creating a visual realm that approximates an internal reaction to Augiéras’s painting and writing. The film, at times displays a remarkably tactile appreciation of sounds and images that justifies Lacuesta’s determined obliqueness, particularly the scenes that find Barceló carefully unfolding old, rotting artwork as well as an intensely erotic moment of horseplay among bandits that represents one of only two of the film’s references to Augiéras’s sexuality.
But one can’t help but sense that underneath the complicated art-house game-playing resides a theme that’s sentimental and old-hat. The Double Steps is most obviously about the aesthetic pleasures and existential reassurances that art offers, and it’s also about the elusive despair of the passage of time—well-treaded ground that’s approached by Lacuesta with a relentless earnestness that quickly grows deadening. There’s a long sequence near the end of the film that feels like an homage to Simon of the Desert, which primes one for a bit of escalating mischief, a prospect that, with the exception of one startling image of parody, isn’t allowed to materialize.
The Double Steps is admirably ambitious and formally impressive, and it’s been worked out by the filmmakers with considerable puzzle-box ingenuity, but it inescapably boils down to a series of scenes where men walk through sand over and over while inexplicably uttering functional lines—such as “we’re out of water”—over and over. Some will probably get quite a bit out of the film, but it desperately needs a sense of unruly contrast. Its reverence of Augiéras inadvertently dries his work of its vitality, turning him into a dull pseudo-saint.