Have you been feeling isolated? Finding yourself debilitated by depression, personal and societal grief, and/or panic attacks? Binge-watching so much of anything that it becomes the visual through-line of your waking life?
If so, you have some things in common with filmmaker Frank Beauvais during a certain period of his life.
Early 2016 found this 40-year-old French filmmaker and cinephile living alone in stiflingly provincial Alsace, recovering from a breakup, avoiding news of terror attacks and a refugee crisis throughout Europe, and trying not to look at himself too closely. To cope, over his four months of solitude, he compulsively watched more than 400 movies. And he hit upon an idea: he’ll tell his story of seclusion through those very movies, using their imagery as medium and intermediary of his despair.
The result is Beauvais’ first feature-length film, “Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream,” a cinematic project in montage and memoir, which screens online as part of the Apohadion Theater’s wonderfully eclectic virtual movie theater.
Those 400-plus films are all we see for the entirety of “Just Don’t Think …,” in a brisk montage of short clips (edited by Thomas Marchand) set against a soundtrack of Beauvais’ voice reading a narrative of his days in Alsace. Some of these films are by renowned masters (Ingmar Bergman, Jean Renoir), some are straight-up B-movies (Roger Corman), some are by the Encyclopedia Britannica or the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and very many are international obscurities.
For Beauvais, many of these films become personal, addictive, damning, and claustrophobic; they become, as he puts it, “mirrors, not windows.”
We’re swept along with Beauvais in a steady stream of images: dead birds, bare porno bums, propellers, kitsch, creepy dolls, riots, sausages, hypodermic needles, snakes amid bicycle spokes, a man defenestrating, daisies, bloody hands holding a pen. Apace the montage, Beauvais tells of his daily life as he downloads 100 Japanese films, bemoans the bourgeois complacency of Alsace (patriarchy, polkas), and ponders the Russian versus the Western film protagonist (“one creates and produces, the other consumes”). He learns of the terrorist attacks in Paris and later in Nice. Recalls his father’s death in this same house. Gets a toothache. Hosts some filmmaker friends. Visits Paris.
And gradually moves forward.
Sometimes the images in the montage align topically with his narration (an empty lounger as he speaks of a “ghost chair”), sometimes more figuratively (a blemished apple smashed, as he worries of being “an unstable, unfinished adult”). Composition varies from very close shots, like a baby bird in a spoon, to wider shots of crowds in streets or cows in pens. Something about their progression feels less associative and organic and more mechanical or metronomic, the images progressing with the automatic rhythm of your streaming service serving up the next episode, or of how someone in crisis might rock himself.
This rhythm echoes Beauvais’ single-minded compulsion. Keeping up with the constant new juxtapositions of words and images is sometimes energizing, sometimes as exhausting as it must have been for Beauvais to live it.
“Just Don’t Think …” is billed as an “essay film,” but I might counter that it’s more of a film essay. Formally – with the obvious exception of the visual montage – it seems defined more by the constraints of the verbal form than the filmic. Rarely do we see visual storytelling proceed absent the verbal narrative, and the minimal sound design focuses on Beauvais’ voice, which delivers the essay at a swift, unvaried pace and in a near monotone.
In that sense, it’s an interestingly non-filmic approach to a cineaste’s film memoir. This is a limitation from an aesthetic perspective, but it also serves a purpose: the approach shackles us to the spoken story in a way that helps us feel the inescapable strain and dissonance of being in Beauvais’ head as he considers the precarious state of himself and the world.
We, viewers, care about that world, but how much do we care about Beauvais? It’s a fair question for any memoir. In “Just Don’t Think …,” I was at times transported into empathy with the tangible details of his father’s death or an encounter with his ex-lover. At more rhetorically abstract points in the narrative, I felt shut out or even repelled from what Beauvais himself worries might be the “narcissism” of his project. And I suspect that this effect is, to at least some extent, by design.
Because Beauvais is engaging in questions of art even as he makes it, there are questions we too try to hash out as we watch and react: How can we relate to another’s grief? How does the art we consume influence us, and how might it serve the stories we continue to tell? How can we tell stories of larger social traumas through our perspectives as individuals?
Inventive, vivid, cinematically limited in ways but candid and deeply felt, “Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream” makes a poignant contribution to this ongoing conversation about how our storytelling can engage both collective and personal grief. It’s an especially relevant conversation now, when we have a breathtaking new store of it to tell.
Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.
Theater at home and out
Old-school horror à la Stephen King never really gets old, and longtime Maine audio-horror master Fred Greenhalgh has released a new standalone season of his podcast “The Dark Tome.”
Called “Undertow” and recorded by more than 40 actors in lockdown, this Dagaz Media production follows journalist Tony Baxter as he investigates a mega-corporation’s suspicious project in his small Maine hometown. The first installment launched on Jan. 14; new episodes drop weekly on Stitcher through March. Visit https://thedarktome.com/undertow.
For some old-fashioned storytelling on the Zoom, check out the last of Penobscot Theatre Company’s run of “Flyin’ Solo,” in which twelve actors over rotating nights present autobiographical theater, through Feb. 7. And watch for the opening of a Valentine’s Day puppet show, also streaming on Zoom: “The Tiniest Librarian,” about a very small book lover in search of a Valentine. Visit https://www.penobscottheatre.org.
And Portland Stage Company’s production of Liz Duffy Adams’ sex farce “Or,” about England’s first female playwright-cum-spy, is onstage live now in a presentation of the Winnipesaukee Playhouse, with digital streaming set to begin Feb. 10. Visit https://www.portlandstage.org.
— Megan Grumbling