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NYFF 2020: ‘Ouvertures’ Review: Drama Drowned in Languid Indulgence

The Living and the Dead Ensemble

The life of a play can be a fascinating thing. Following the journey of that play, through the eyes of the players who bring the piece to fruition, can capture some compelling truths about how different generations and personality types understand literature, interpret meaning, and apply themselves to a text. In Ouvertures, directors Louis Henderson and Olivier Marboeuf attempt such a venture by tracing the work of international theatre group The Living and the Dead Ensemble, who rehearse Édouard Glissant’s Monsieur Toussaint in various areas of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. While moments of this sprawling film address valuable, rich themes stemming from the legacy and importance of Black revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture, the sheer length and density of this almost two-and-a-half-hour piece drown the experience in pretension and exhausting indulgence. 

First things must, unfortunately, come first. The opening half-hour of Ouvertures is fatally ill-judged, comprised of nothing but lugubrious montage and frankly irritating whispered narration. Certain striking shots distract from the suffocating monotony here and there, but it is no exaggeration to say this film would be immeasurably improved by excising at least the first 35 minutes. In truth, it is not until about one hour into the film that the viewer is treated to any substantial or worthwhile insight into the theatre group’s work or L’Ouverture’s legacy. It would be a mistake to imply that all films are inherently better for having shorter runtimes, but in this case, this is an inevitable conclusion.

The Living and the Dead Ensemble

It is impossible to overlook the callous first impression caused by this introductory stretch. No one should have to sit through such a lethargic slog before watching a series of play rehearsals on the other end. The pace and tone of the film only slightly improve as the central subject is illuminated — most of Ouvertures after this point retains the lifeless, drudging pace as Henderson and Marboeuf draw closer to the players’ process. A few graciously lively scenes foregrounding the all-Black ensemble bring some energy to the proceedings, but are quickly moved on from in favor of more languid, meaningless drifting. 

When the play and its actors are in the center of attention, certain conversations address more pertinent, interesting themes. In one such scene, two men discuss the complex meanings of citizenship, identity, and “Africanité,” including the generational differences between those who wish to be citizens of the world, and those who believe such a concept is fundamentally unobtainable. In another, the ensemble discusses their aspirations as theatremakers, and debate how their work can and should express the spirit of Haitian creativity to the rest of the world. In a third, two of the actors describe the presence of Vodou (sic) in Haitian culture, which they believe is embodied within the island’s people, and impossible for foreigners to properly understand or utilize. 

The Living and the Dead Ensemble

These moments highlight the frustrating imbalance within Ouvertures, in that the subjects Henderson and Marboeuf try to cover are significantly more interesting and contain significantly more potential than the approach the directors have chosen to take. Even the peripheral detailing of Port-au-Prince in the background of the overlong rehearsal sequences presents a fascinating window into the city, described effectively by one actor as “a furious machine that never sleeps.” As for the theatrical venture itself, the choices of setting are quite inventive; it is a neat opportunity to watch theatre being realized in an abandoned temple, on a pallid beach, in a mysterious cave, or in the depths of the jungle. 

Unfortunately, too many of the performances are lilting and overly restrained, and the staging leaves too much to the imagination more often than not. The secrets of the text and the nation may be personal to the performers, and rapturous in their own way, but there is little for the uninitiated to grasp onto, creating an atmosphere of eyeroll-inducing opacity. The most risible element in this regard stems from the actors’ own apparent disinterest in the project — many of them seem visibly unconcerned with their work on the piece, and thoroughly unenthusiastic about the directors’ attempts at documenting it. It’s hard to take such a demanding film seriously if those involved look so nonplussed about appearing in it themselves, and without significant reason to read some meta-commentary into this schism between creation and creators, this dynamic simply results in a withering effect. 

The Living and the Dead Ensemble

In the final stretch of Ouvertures, the directors make the baffling decision to return to the lifeless drawl of the film’s opening. This ending is so ruthlessly slow and pointlessly vague that the end credits provide a much-needed relief from the agonizing experience. This is not to imply that a project regarding the complicated teachings of Toussaint L’Ouverture himself must be flashy or fast-paced to succeed, but it is hard to deny that Ouvertures fails to impart much wisdom or convey much meaning regarding the eponymous man or the featured troupe. Perhaps at half the length, the effect might be different, but as it stands, this film is a seriously miscalculated misfire.

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