A boy and a girl who hardly know each other go on their first date in a park and at first glance their encounter seems so pedestrian that it borders on banality: French teenagers chat about Freud, then fall in love. What else is new? Yet director Damien Manivel stripes their meeting of its particularities and focuses on the core instead, as if he were creating the theoretical abstraction of a summertime fling. Manivel (with experience in performing arts such as acrobacy and dancing) films his two characters as if they were standing on the edge of a theater stage: they both enter the frame in an almost mechanical fashion, utter phrases that sound rehearsed and perform gestures with pragmatic perfectionism. They know their every movement is being scrutinized – not just by an audience – but by each other as well. A mask of indifference is needed to overcome the initial awkwardness (every suggested conversation topic is nipped in the bud with a casual “d’accord”).
Manivel dissects the different parts of the evolving romance and goes through the motions as if they were obligatory rituals:the exchange of pleasantries is gradually replaced by careful teasing and playfights, tenderness rises when personal issues are shared and eventually, the privacy of secluded bushes is sought out. This last part especially is filmed with solemn sensibility and holds great timelessness, as if the foliage of the earth could serve no greater goal than to hide frolicking couples throughout the ages. Manivel suggests indeed that the infatuation creates a temporary Garden of Eden for these adolescents where no external influences are allowed: the only sound is the wind rustling through the trees, the park seems deserted and the few other visitors exist only as automated entities (example: a lonely jogger suddenly stops in his tracks only to repeat the same trail all over again).
The ethereal world the characters inhabit in is linked to the fact that we’re witnessing puppy love blossom in the purest (and most superficial) form, at a point where it’s still possible to have an idealized, flawless image of one another. This image is evoked through various portrait shots of the teenagers (the film is shot in 4:3 aspect ratio) that have an disarming sweetness to them, like the wallet sized photos of high school crushes that tend to turn up during spring cleanings. As being confronted with a piercing stare you had forgotten, the second half of the film feels like desperately clutching on to a faded memory. Because, although Le Parc appears to take place in real time, there’s also the suggestion of an immense time lapse in between: “That’s us when we’re old” the girl says to the boy when they pass an endearing elderly couple.
This abrupt change of tone occurs when the romance is cut short and the girl left alone in the park after sundown. Suddenly, the idealized image seems as transient as a summer breeze and the girl is seen gathering romantic souvenirs (a forgotten pack of cigarettes, a botched selfie and a handful of text messages), as if she’s grasping on to the only tangible proof she has to remember their encounter (not unlike Harriet Smith’s pathetic box of memories in Jane Austin’s Emma)
Not only the memory becomes distorted, but the setting as well: the park turns into an eerie, abandoned place and what felt like serenity at first, is now just unbearable solitude. During these sequences, Manivel uses clairobscur compositions and contrasts the darkness of the park with radiant light sources (such as a flashlight, the moon, a bicycle light and a cell phone screen) reflected onto his protagonist, as if she were a tragic ghost roaming a purgatory of lovesickness. “I want to go back! I want to go back!” she yells during a wholly unreal moment where a sinister ferryman (previously presented as the park’s night watchman) is gently floating her down the river, which raises the question: at what point does wallowing in melancholy invoke a definitive loss of reality?