Skies Of Lebanon (Sous le ciel d’Alice)

France (2020) Dir. Chloé Mazlo

You never know where you will find your true love and happiness in life, and sometimes it can be too good to be true. Real life however can be hard and will do all it can to ruin that happiness for you, with annoying things like civil wars and such.

Recently qualified as a nanny, Alice (Alba Rohrwacher) leaves her native Switzerland to take a job in Lebanon in the 1950s. Unable to speak Arabic, Alice is lucky to meet Joseph Kamar (Wajdi Mouawad), and astrophysicist with dreams of building the rocket that will send the first Lebanese astronaut into space. They fall in love, get married, and have a daughter Mona (Isabelle Zighondi) – in short, life is great.

Then in 1975, during a party for Mona, shots are heard across the city. They dismiss it as nothing but the next day, the news is explicit – civil war has broken out. The Kamars continue to live life as normal but this soon becomes impossible to ignore, and their small apartment becomes a refuge for the whole family. As things escalate, they are left with a single choice – to stay or leave.

For her feature debut, animator and graphic artist Chloé Mazlo takes as her inspiration the experiences of her grandmother to explore the effects of war on civilian life but like her unique and inventive presentation style, this isn’t your regular anti-war tale. Skies Of Lebanon sounds enticingly poetic as a title but the original French title translates to The Skies Under Alice is more accurate as everything is shown from Alice’s perspective.

Even with Alice as the anchor for the audience, this is still about a family torn apart by war but not through death and violence but paranoia and circumstance. It is about trying to maintain a sense of normalcy whilst the country crumbles around them, having built up and ideal existence, which should seem like head in the sand ignorance but shows guts and determination not to let chaos rule their lives.

Mazlo opens the film in 1977 with a forlorn Alice on a ship, writing a letter which forms the retrospective narrative for the remainder of the story. In what proves to be a huge clash of style visually and tonally, the first 20 minutes utilise stop-motion and regular animation and green screen backdrops to tell the beginnings of this saga, with amusing sights such as a live action Alice arguing with her claymation parents, and the most chaste birth in modern cinema.

Played out with the same whimsy as a Michel Gondry film, the sheer bliss of this opening salvo is made more charming by the muted colour palette and exquisite replication of the period aesthetic. The clothes, hairstyles, and décor are on point, subtly evolving during a busy montage of the 20-year passing of time, cleverly structured by using a single scene and having the characters walk in and out of shot, with Mona’s growth from baby to young woman noticeable.    

As twee as it sounds, it serves a purpose to assimilate the audience to the warmth of this idyllic existence before it is shattered by the small intrusion of the civil war. At first this is present like a joke – two groups of masked men stand either side of a small wall of sandbags and start scrapping with other whilst a woman dressed as tree (I think) and arrives afterwards to clean up the mess.

Gondry has left the building and Roy Andersson has taken his place it would seem, at least that is the impression some of the scenes give. Occasionally, the odd tableau crops up which, whilst innocent enough, feels like it wouldn’t be out of place in the Swedish surrealist works. But the humour has subsided by this point, and the grim reality of the country’s upheaval creeps into the picture, interfering in the family’s daily lives.

Whatever distance they had kept from the fighting from being cooped up in the tiny flat is shattered when Tony (Jade Breidi), husband of Joseph’s younger sister Mimi (Mariah Tannoury), fails to return home one night. Adding a poster of Tony to a wall already adorned with missing person notices, the family are now victims of the war like everyone else. As much as they try to stay optimistic, deep down they fear the worst.

Joseph on the other hand remains optimistic despite the many interruptions to his rocket building endeavours, and Alice gives him her support, but in the time honoured tradition of the generation gap, the younger members of the family can’t hide their disgust at the developments. In a bold move, Mona at a piano recital starts singing a song with lyrics bemoaning the state of the country to a stunned audience.

Since no real fighting is shown, the real war for the audience is the one fought by Alice in trying to be supportive of Joseph but struggling to share his positive view that the country will sort itself out. Alice fell in love with Beirut and Joseph, but with many nationals leaving the country, the family included, Alice feels there is nothing left for her there, and not even her love for Joseph and his stubborn idealism can change that.

Like Gondry, Mazlo peaks too soon. The opening, as already opined, is fabulous with a strong first hour subtly mocking of the closed-minded plight of the family. But even for a 90-minute film, the last act feels woefully protracted as it sputters to the climax, brought down by the miserable tone that an uplifting denouement barely saves. The only thing that really keeps us transfixed to the screen is Alba Rohrwacher, delivering a sturdy and layered performance as the angelic Alice.  

Based on the promise of a sunny, heart warming, quirky comedy it is easy to misjudge Skies Of Lebanon’s true dramatic intentions, yet Mazlo’s inventiveness and artistic flair is undeniable as is her promise as a filmmaker.

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