In First Cow, her second western and best film to date, Kelly Reichardt continues her alternate story of conquering the West.
Do you have to be a western fanatic to make one? Or, to put it another way, is the 21st century western doomed to be a commentary on the genre itself? Among American filmmakers, opinions diverge and we will not necessarily get the same answer depending on whether we ask the question to, say, Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Costner or Kelly Reichardt. Tarantino fed on Sergio Leone’s postmodernism, Costner worships John Ford’s classicism: they don’t like the same films but both claim a tradition. Reichardt does not brandish any reference, affirms that she does not harbor any particular obsession for the genre. Which makes her a special case. “I’ve learned to love westerns, but I’ve never been particularly drawn to them “, she explains.
However, with two westerns on her CV, she is now a specialist in the matter. Two westerns, and not the least. The first, The Last Track, released in France in 2011, re-read the myth of the Frontier from an unprecedented, austere and minimalist angle, espousing the point of view of the forgotten of official history – women and Indians – to tell in a wealth of concrete details and trivial the reality of pioneer life – fatigue, hunger, fear, thirst, the sun beating and burning faces, the feeling of disorientation, the time it takes to change the axle of a wagon . The second, First Cow (which just hit theaters after being released on the MUBI platform), is a fable describing the tiny business of two broke pals who, in 1820s Oregon, decide to bake honey cakes for sale. local trappers, stealing cow’s milk from a local potentate.
First Cow is the masterpiece of Kelly Reichardt, who reflects on the birth of capitalism, the vestiges of pre-industrial America, the corruption of nature by the spirit of conquest. If she occasionally allows herself a little soaring swerve at the Dead man, she never gives the opportunity to have conceived her film in reaction to the billions of westerns that came before her own. Like the barge that goes up the Columbia River at the opening of her film, the director goes back to the source, in search of a form of original purity.
“I love Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher and have been fed by Sam Peckinpah movies, she sums up when asked about her influences. But I don’t think I will be able to see a Peckinpah anymore today… Too much romanticized violence, too much boiling masculinity! I won’t be able to take this anymore! (Laughs) I’ve driven a lot across the United States and I think the western actually comes from there, from my travels. It is the American landscape that led me to invest in the western. “ And not, as for many of her colleagues, the western which brought her to invest the American landscape.
The best westerns of the 21st century
Born in Florida in 1964, Kelly Reichardt, like the pioneers whose stories she tells, crossed the United States from east to west to one day establish her base camp in Oregon, in the northwest of the country, where she is at the same time in contact with the eternal America that she tracks in her films, and with the artistic community of Portland, of which she has become one of the leading figures, alongside her friends Gus Van Sant and Todd Haynes . The road, nature, wandering, the risk of getting lost along the way, the remains of an old territory covered by the steamroller of civilization, have always been his subjects, since his first feature, the unknown River of grass, in 1994, until Wendy and Lucy Where Some women, who made her an icon of the indie scene.
In the late 2000s, during a trip with novelist Jon Raymond (who collaborates on the screenplay for almost all of his films), Reichardt flashes over the high desert of Oregon, in the central and eastern parts of the State, “so different from all the deserts that[elle] had known until then “, and who will provide the backdrop for The Last Track. The film is based on the diaries and accounts of migrants driven along the Oregon Trail in 1845 by a guide named Stephen Meek who, after offering them a shortcut through the desert, had gone revealed incapable of carrying them through.
“The Last Track originated in a true story, but also had a timeless dimension, comments Reichardt. The idea of this man of disproportionate pride leading a group of people into the desert and not knowing how to get them out of it seemed like a good way to tell a story with a contemporary subtext. While filming, I was nevertheless very aware of the pitfalls of the western. As soon as I put my camera down somewhere, because there were carts in the frame, I found myself, like it or not, in the wake of all the westerns that had come before me. I was surprised to see how certain shots necessarily involved questioning the genre. It’s a grammar that’s so powerful, so established. Either you accept it, or you refuse it, but you are obliged to define yourself in relation to it. It has to be something conscious. “
First Cow is the next step. Another kind of animal. “It’s also a western, Reichardt analysis, corn located in Oregon in the 1820s, i.e. before Oregon was even American. What makes more free. There, there is nothing that overhangs, no reference that preexists. The forest in which the characters evolve also helps to make the atmosphere different. So, of course, the movie is about consumerism, conquest, exploitation, empowerment, but this time around I didn’t feel like I was making a western with a capital W. “ Hence, no doubt, the feeling of witnessing the absolute affirmation of a signature, of an identity. What still sometimes resembled in Reichardt’s previous films a little too explicit theoretical biases (even downright boring, for some) evaporates here to let unfold the harmony of a mature style. While the square format (in 1.37) of The Last Track At first seemed to be there to play against the CinemaScope cliché that is traditionally associated with the western, First Cow, him, justifies his filming in 1.33 by the specificities of its geographical anchoring, the forests of high conifers in the middle of which the characters evolve.
“Westerns don’t have to be in Scope!, continues Reichardt. Anthony Mann was running in 1.66, and William Wellman too, it seems to me. Actually First Cow takes place in a forest, where everything is vertical. If you are filming a forest, you have to show the treetops. There are also many scenes in Cookie and King-Lu’s little cabin. (the two heroes of the film), where the wide screen would have been absurd. Because after all… it’s all about baking cookies! (Laughs) It’s the story of two men who are at the bottom of the social ladder. They dream of a little more comfort and, to do so, must commit petty theft. What is the theft of a little milk in relation to what is happening around them, the extermination of beavers, the theft of land from First Nations, the plundering of natural resources? This is the story of the conquest, but told through small gestures. The framework must therefore espouse this idea. Make sense. “
Our review of First Cow
There has of course always been a political dimension in Kelly Reichardt’s search for minimalism, in her art of aesthetic degrowth. She denies it, however, at the conclusion of a book recently devoted to her by the Center Pompidou (Kelly Reichardt, America crossed again), reaffirming her attachment to what she considers to be the very essence of the western: “American cinema loves heroes. If you make an American western from any point of view other than that of the white man, it is interpreted as a political statement. It’s strange, because the starting postulate of the western is precisely the discovery of a new territory, where the rules have not yet been fixed, where the organization of power has not yet been established – it is is the creation of a new world. “ It is often said that the western is dead and buried. In First Cow, he looks like a newborn baby.
First Cow, by Kelly Reichardt, currently in theaters.
Retrospective “Kelly Reichardt, America crossed again”, at the Center Pompidou, until October 24.