Gare du Nord / Human Geography (2013, Claire Simon)

I had to open LNKarno with the Claire Simon film to tie it together with True/False, where she was last year’s True Vision Award winner. Cannes Month got interrupted by vacation this year, represented only by The Salesman and Bright Star, so I didn’t give LNKarno a time limit, just picked some selections and kept watching ’em until it felt over. Simon had two related films at the fest in 2013: the train station-set drama Gare du Nord in competition, and a documentary about people they met at the station, Human Geography, in the out-of-competition Fuori Concorso. It reminded me of the In the City of Sylvia double-feature, another doc/fiction pair set in the same spaces.

Gare du Nord stars Nicole Garcia, a filmmaker in competition four times at Cannes, also a star of Mon oncle d’Amérique and Duelle. Mathilde is taking trains to get treatment for an unspecified illness, and runs across the younger Ismael (Reda Kateb of A Prophet and the most recent Wim Wenders), who talks with people in the station for his sociology thesis. “When you’re here, you’re nowhere really, but at the same time it’s like a village square.” She’s a professor and shows some interest in his project, and he shows some interest in her (she’s married but we only see the husband once).

Meanwhile, a TV host (Francois Damiens of Les Cowboys, The Brand New Testament) has a missing daughter, hangs out at the station waving her photograph around and reluctantly taking photos with fans. A fellow student gets Ismael involved in a health services protest that aims to shut down train service. A giant unstable man wreaks havoc in a lingerie shop. Joan (Monia Chokri of a couple Xavier Dolan movies, this year’s Ravenous) is a harried realtor whose job is destroying her family, runs into each of the other characters. The movie ends abruptly with Mathilde’s offscreen death after some vaguely hippie plot contrivances lead the TV host to his missing daughter. Mostly it’s realistic, but sometimes there are ghosts.

Human Geography is a straightforward doc, the music and photography pretty basic, either the film or the DVD transfer turning black faces into smudges. Claire speaks with station workers and regulars, and also employs her friend Simon as an interviewer, meeting people from Tunisia and Mali and Brittany, Vietnam, Algeria, Cuba, USA, Mauritius, Iran, Congo. They talk with a couple of racist Belgians, and witness so much fare cheating at the turnstiles.

Simon, taking a breather after speaking with the Belgians:

The lingerie shop, the photomat, and at least one local (a diner worker with an economics degree who sells art online) appear in both movies. Gare du Nord didn’t come together for me, and the dialogue felt flat (maybe chalk that up to shady subtitles), and Human Geography is interesting enough – maybe if you’re a station regular who walks past the immigrant workers daily without considering their histories or inner lives it’d be extremely enlightening. Watching both movies in a row, though, is pretty great. Not to harp on the True/False connection, but the real stories in the doc suggest the sheer number of directions the feature could’ve taken – you could make a career’s worth of films in the station.

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