Like just about everyone else, MUBI has gotten into the distribution business — in a way. The streaming service, a favorite among cinephiles, has been offering a curated selection of arthouse titles for years: 30 movies at a time, each available for 30 days. Its new Discoveries platform, which seeks to highlight two recent offerings from the festival circuit per month, makes a strong first impression with Damien Manivel's Le parc. Available to stream from Feb. 10 to March 11 — and screening this Friday at Echo Park Film Center — the beguiling romance premiered as part of a Cannes sidebar last year.
Comparisons to Richard Linklater's Before trilogy are inevitable — the first half of the film is essentially one long walk-and-talk between two teenagers on a first date, largely in real time — but, thankfully, Manivel has more to offer than Linklater lite. His unnamed protagonists (Maxime Bachellerie and Naomie Vogt-Roby) behave as you'd expect two nervous adolescents who don't know each other very well to: He asks if she's heard of Freud (she hasn't) before offering a primer on psychoanalysis; she does a handstand and dares him to try one of his own.
Manivel has a sly, understated control over this walk through the park, but there’s more on his mind than the awkward courtship of two mumbling teens. When the girl shows the boy a photo on her phone, Manivel displays it on-screen so we can see what they're seeing. It's a brief, lo-fi interruption of the action but also a small act signaling a sort of break. There's a growing energy between the two adolescents and beyond, and over the course of Le parc's 73 minutes it comes to be the film's dominant force.
Eventually, after a silence, the boy tells the girl she's cute. They'll soon share a kiss and part ways. Le parc takes on an ominous quiet as night falls and the park begins to clear out, almost as though Manivel's film has shifted into the same strange world as Alain Guiraudie's Stranger by the Lake. The boy texts the girl something he couldn't muster the courage to say aloud — true feelings are always harder to express than memorized notes from first-year philosophy — and low-stakes revelry slowly gives way to regret. Manivel finds in his young actors' faces the pain of not understanding their feelings, let alone how to act on them.
Your mileage may vary when it comes time to watch nothing more than the girl's face as she works out this not-quite-relationship via text message, but similar scenes don't prevent Kristen Stewart from compelling in Olivier Assayas' Personal Shopper. And, wouldn't you know it, Manivel likewise commingles SMS with the surreal, marking the latter half of his film with his heroine's out-of-nowhere decision to go walking backward through the park. It's as though she's retracing her steps in reverse to see where the day went wrong, as mystified by what's transpired as we might be.
The less immediate sense it makes, the more Le parc intrigues. Manivel invites us to get to know his film in a tentative but intimate way, a process that goes more smoothly for us than it does for his characters.