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FILMS / REVIEWS

Review: The Mustang

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- Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre delivers an excellent first feature film shot in the US and revolving around a prisoner’s redemption through the training of a mustang

Review: The Mustang
Matthias Schoenaerts in The Mustang

"Respect his kind and he’ll respect yours ". Just like the two protagonists of her first full-length film The Mustang [+see also:
trailer
interview: Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre
film profile
]
, unveiled out of competition at the Sundance Festival and scheduled for release in French cinemas on 19 June by Ad Vitam, Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre manages to strike the right balance in an exceptionally rare undertaking for a young, French director: filming in the US and taking on two genres highly emblematic of the American Wild West; specifically, the prison film and an immersion into cowboy surrounds, as it’s the training of wild mustangs which takes centre stage here. It’s a decidedly virile atmosphere, whichever way you look at it. And yet the director succeeds in impressing upon the film a style which is both effective and respectful of traditional codes, whilst also subtly injecting her own personal sensitivities into this rugged story, which revolves around the themes of captivity and freedom, savagery and self-control.

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"I’m not good around people, send me back to the hole". For Roman Coleman (Belgian Matthias Schoenaerts, who’s perfect in this physical and explosively introverted role), who’s just been transferred to another prison and is still in solitary confinement, his prison classification interview (which includes a multiple-choice question on the various possible reactions he might have on finding his wife in bed with someone else) is pure torture. Visited only by his daughter, whose sole goal is to get him to sign a document allowing her to sell the family home and start a new life elsewhere, our silent and highly volatile prisoner (whose reason for going to jail is a mystery to us for a large part of the film) is moved into aisle D, section 3 of a rather unique penal institution, offering inmates the opportunity to train wild mustangs before they’re sold at auction.

With no experience in the matter and somewhat terrified by the power and fury radiating from the beast ("he’s dangerous, crazy like no other") with which he’ll be thrust into a corral by Myles (Bruce Dern), the head trainer ("if you manage to stay in there for five seconds, you can join the programme"), Roman will gradually become initiated in the subtleties of establishing a relationship with this animal ("make him move forward, stay in the middle, don’t look him in the eyes", "you have to relax to connect with him", "to take control of the horse, you first need to be in control of yourself", "you need to be patient if you want to be able to touch him", "it’s all a question of balance and concentration"). A bond is formed, in pain and pleasure, violence and tenderness, slowly bringing about a transformation in Roman and in his perception and acceptation of others and himself. But in prison, nothing can be taken for granted, especially when wild instincts can never be fully bridled and where everything can change in a fraction of a second…

Hugely realist, especially with regard to the impressive horse training scenes it offers, The Mustang allies subtle narrative simplicity (courtesy of a screenplay written by the director alongside Mona Fastvold and Norman Brock, and in collaboration with Benjamin Charbit) with great emotional acuity, for which it is largely indebted to Matthias Schoenaerts’ performance. Exploring through its action the fascinating subject of anger management, the film also indulges in a few superb sequences, taking in the vast and sumptuous landscape of the arid state of Nevada. The many qualities exuded by this first full-length work make for a very solid feature film début and confirm Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s status as a promising filmmaker whose career development, in either the US or France, should prove very interesting to follow.

Produced by the Parisian outfit Légende, The Mustang was co-produced by France 3 Cinéma, Mact Productions and C2M Productions, alongside Belgian firms Nexus Factory and Umedia and British group Anima Films. International sales are in the hands of Focus Features.

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(Translated from French)

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