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LES ARCS 2021

Review: Singing Jailbirds

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- Alex Lutz breaks down the doors and the walls of the female prison world by delivering an operatic singing workshop in Étienne Comar’s second feature film

Review: Singing Jailbirds

"Just like the flowers in my garden, I take root wherever I’m watered". It’s with the help of these simple words sung in Où l’on me verse du bon vin (attributed to Mozart) that an opera teacher becomes acquainted with the voices of each of the six women signed up to his workshop. Daring to trust one another, not worrying about accuracy, cutting themselves off from their environment, becoming vocally aware, working on relaxation and breathing, working out where they are, emotionally speaking, treating themselves, finding beauty in singing and not forgetting that "listening is also about choosing what we really want to hear": all choirs follow the same path of learning when it comes to harmonies, but that placed centre stage by Étienne Comar in his second feature film Singing Jailbirds - which premiered at the 13th Les Arcs Film Festival – is markedly different since it’s set in a prison.

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"It’s not the opera here! (…) Most of them are here for violent crimes, domestic killings, drug cases, assaults and there are a few dementia cases, too." The prison world, where a tiny tuning fork can be seen as a potential weapon, is totally new to Luc (Alex Lutz), and the lessons he gives as part of an integration and probation programme see him delving into the unknown where he must toe the line between teaching his art and adapting to the markedly different personalities shown by his students, who are suffering more or less acutely from their detention. It’s the gradual discovery and establishment of a group which covers all the emotions (sometimes turbulent, sometimes funny, sometimes poignant beneath a hard exterior), which also act as a mirror for the teacher who is secretly walled in a process of personal grief.

How do you find harmony in seemingly hostile circumstances? How do you escape from bad karma in your mind and, in the omnipresent shadow of wardens and bars, accept your fragility, forge new bonds, awaken your body and soul from the melancholy torpor which serves to numb deep wounds? Through the metaphor of prison (visually enhanced by a 1.33 format) and over the course of ten lessons set out in a very well-constructed script (penned by the director himself), Étienne Comar explores the contrasting facets of the concept of liberation, striking the balance between fictional storytelling and documentary realism.

Starring an excellent female cast composed of professional (Agnès Jaoui, Veerle Baetens, Hafsia Herzi and Marie Berto) and non-professional actresses (Fatima Berriah and Anna Nadjer), the film makes room for each of its protagonists’ individual worlds and humanity, as its focus subtly shifts from the story-driving wake of Alex Lutz (brilliant in his role as an introverted leader who is more elusive and ambivalent than he seems) to the day-to-day prison life lived by the women in this very special choir. And, naturally, there’s music, from L’amour est un oiseau rebelle by Bizet to Bang bang; from Cum Dederit by Vivaldi to India Song by Jeanne Moreau, without forgetting Où sont les femmes? by Patrick Juvet, and Glauque’s rap-song Plane which also features on the soundtrack. Because "that’s what’s good about singing, you can be different and a few people at the same time", and this fits perfectly with a director working at the crossroads between arthouse cinema and popular film, who can strike the right balance between accuracy and empathy, demonstrating in the wake of Django (the first feature he directed), that he wants to reveal the human beneath his masterful screenwriter armour.

Singing Jailbirds is produced by Maneki Films and Arches Films, in co-production with Belgium’s Versus Productions, RTBF, Proximus, Voo & Be TV. The film will be distributed in France by Ad Vitam on 6 April 2022, with international sales entrusted to Playtime.

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(Translated from French)

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