FANTASIA FEST 2020: ‘Savage State’

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As famous as the Western genre is, it’s really quite limited when you think about it. The Western is distinctly and definitively American, and aggressively masculine. Think of the Western and you think of gruff and rugged manliness in the form of John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, or Lee Van Cleef. Savage State is here to prove that the Western can thrive within a European lens and that women in the West can ride boldly alongside the legendary men of the genre. In the opinion of this critic, Savage State is proof that the Western has a future.

The “baguetti-Western” is written and directed by David Perrault and stars Alice Isaaz, Kate Moran, and Kevin Janssens. Savage State is an official selection of the 2020 Fantasia Film Festival and will make its North American Premiere during its run at the Fest.

In Savage State, the U.S. is in the midst of the Civil War. As the Americans tear themselves apart, a family of French colonists employs a gunslinger to help guide them safely to a safe port so that they may escape to Paris. The journey is dangerous enough, but tension has arisen between the patriarch of the family, his dutiful wife, their freed-slave maid, and their three daughters. As the young girls leave behind their life of protection and comfort, their real strength is tested. Esther, the youngest, is especially willful and embraces the challenge of their journey… and her attraction to their roguish guide Victor.

As I mentioned at the outset, the Western is as American as apple pie. Stories within the genre are usually tied to Western expansion, settlement, and the Civil War through the perspective of the Northern and Southern soldiers. Savage State immediately sets itself apart by reminding the viewer that the history of the United States is a history of immigrants and blended nationalities and cultures building the foundation of the country.

The film seamlessly infuses French influence into the classically American form of storytelling, bridging the gap between the genre’s tropes and the very real and deep French history in the United States. The result is an intoxicating blend of bandits smuggling luxury French goods, foreign detachment from the conflict of the Civil War, and a subtle acknowledgment of French Creole culture and how European and African culture blended together into an all-new American flavor. This shift from the homogenous American West into something more global gives the Western a refreshing depth and richness.

That richness jumps out of the film’s cultural context and straight into the impressive period set pieces. The costuming, settings, and landscapes are absolutely stunning. The feeling of awe when taking in the film’s good looks is only bolstered by a grandiose soundtrack. Westerns, traditionally, are masters of this grand and sweeping scope. They feel massive in their expanses of rugged landscape and majestic scores, and Savage State is no exception. It is a credit to David Perrault that despite his markedly European scope, he is still able to capture the grandeur that defines the genre. Truly, Savage State is a stunner.

Savage State

Kate Moran is a shot of whiskey in her role as the ruthless outlaw, Bettie. Her performance is a hardened homage to every iconic Western villain originated by Lee Van Cleef. In fact, Moran’s ability to channel the icon through a strong filter of enraged womanhood is simply incredible. Moran commands the screen and delivers a performance that understands the merciless Western villain. She plays the trope to perfection, infusing her own contemporary sexual power into one of the best screen villains we will see this year.

Following Moran’s lead, Alice Isaaz, Armelle Abibou, and the rest of the female ensemble bring to life an exciting meditation on female power. The exploration of sisterhood softens the film, but the real intrigue is found in how each of these characters summons up strength when faced with danger. Esther (Alice Isaaz) seeks forbidden knowledge and bucks against convention. As a foil to Kate Moran’s Bettie in the strange and deadly love triangle they share with Victor, Esther shows that she can tap into the coldness necessary to survive.

Layla, a freed-slave and maid to the family played by Armelle Abibou, is a character I wish we could see even more of. Abibou’s performance is subtle, but commanding. The character of Layla, while operating primarily in the wings, is the grounding force that contextualizes the film. Her escape to Paris is made more significant by the Civil War raging in the background. Her practice of voodoo and her ability to command agency, despite her station, is a testament to the enduring mark that Black people (Black women especially) have made in our history.

Many contemporary viewers look at the Western as an antiquated genre. A problematic, “shoot ’em up” era of cinema that has no place in a modern media landscape. It’s a valid point, but Savage State proves otherwise. Savage State is the perfect illustration of how the genre can grow, evolve, and include without losing the sense of majesty that allows it to endure in the imagination. Savage State should be the standard, going forward, not the exception.

Savage State is a gorgeous monument to its genre. Bedecked in the sweeping cinematography traditional to the Western but given invigorating new life through its brilliant writing and impressive ensemble performance. The best of old guard cinema and modern storytelling. Savage State is the Western we’ve been waiting for!

Savage State premiered live at Fantasia Fest 2020 on August 29 and will screen again on August 31 at 7pm.

Savage State
  • 8/10
    Rating - 8/10
8/10

TL;DR

Savage State is a gorgeous monument to its genre. Bedecked in the sweeping cinematography traditional to the Western but given invigorating new life through its brilliant writing and impressive ensemble performance. The best of old guard cinema and modern storytelling. Savage State is the Western we’ve been waiting for!