True/False: ‘The Grocer’s Son’ trudges through standard plot

The documentary about nonfiction filmmaking resorts to interesting scenery and characters, yet lacks interest in its storyline.

A documentary about documentaries was the last film I expected to see at the True/False Film Fest.

But “The Grocer’s Son, the Mayor, the Village and the World,” a French film set in the charming village of Lussas, is just that. Director Claire Simon envelopes herself in the culture of documentaries as she films the day-to-day struggles of a town whose primary industry is nonfiction filmmaking.

For a seasoned veteran of True/False or a frequent documentary consumer, this is particularly appealing. Simon’s methods are meticulous — she lingers on beautiful images of the French countryside just long enough to put the viewer in a trance-like state. She intimately captures Lussas’ other industry, winemaking, through conversations with vineyard workers and imagery of glistening grapes.

But for an average viewer accustomed to more action, the plot drags. As Lussas’ annual film festival approaches, local documentarians attempt to establish a documentary streaming site to bring in more revenue. Bogged down by bureaucratic office meetings and the technical details of running a website, this portion of the film remains entirely uninteresting.

It also focuses on the construction of a new “documentary house” in Lussas, which includes rooms for editing and screening films. Interspersed throughout the film are stark images of the progress on the building, meant to represent the progress of the filmmakers’ and winemakers’ endeavors, but the blatant metaphor only adds to the film’s runtime.

Beyond the plot, the film runs its course exactly as a documentary should. Simon presents adjacent images (documentarians, winemakers, village life, the film festival) that seem to have no connection at first, and then the puzzle pieces fall into place. Each seemingly disconnected segment of the film captures progress and routine — the daily goals and trials of small-town workers.

Furthermore, the scenery is varied and appealing. From a throng of bodies under hot lights dancing at Lussas’ film festival, to a peaceful, empty soccer field — Simon’s scope is not limited to landscape shots of the mountainous region. Instead, she zooms in and out, from precise details to broader scenes.

The tiniest details of human expression are carefully included in the film. Often, the camera focuses on a character’s lips as they twitch, or a particular hand gesture. The depth of emotion and breadth of setting are perhaps the two highlights of the film.

As an average audience member with no stake in the culture of documentary filmmaking, my eyes periodically glazed over while watching “The Grocer’s Son.” While the film is certainly picturesque, well-executed and “gentle,” as some critics described, it doesn’t captivate an untrained eye. Particularly striking moments are few and far between, and I often became confused as Simon layered more and more interconnected plotlines on top of each other. Like Lussas’ “natural, organic” wines, this film is not for everyone.

But for a True/False junkie, “The Grocer’s Son” is a must-see. It’s palatable — a quiet, calm break from the other heart-wrenching, gripping documentaries that fill the festival’s 2021 schedule. Seasoned viewers will appreciate Simon’s flawless technique and her inside look into the lives of French documentarians.

“The Grocer’s Son, the Mayor, the Village and the World” will not be shown again at True/False and is not yet available for streaming.

Edited by Elise Mulligan | emulligan@themaneater.com

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