The Baguette Western, the equally affectionate and derogatory name for French Westerns, is as spare a genre as it is poorly named. We should agree everything is just a Western. There are not enough made today to continue making differentiating between who makes what Westerns. The cinema today is borderless and everyone gets to make films now, they are not segregated by who makes them and where they are from. From the Director’s Notes for the Brooklyn Film Festival, where Wisteria is now showing, Samuel Jacob Attias notes that this is his chance to make the first Western shot entirely in France. That’s just not true. Claude Berri shot his French Western duology Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources (both parts from 1986) in France. The recent Let the Corpses Tan (2019) is also shot in outlying regions of France. When claiming Firsts it’s better to err on the side of caution because usually they are not true.
Set in Wyoming before the territory had access to Baguettes, Wisteria is striking in the economy of the story and runtime. It clocks in under an hour. In that time, it reaches back to the Westerns of the 1950s. It reaches back in several ways, but the most brutal are the outdated attitudes and conflicts at the center of the film.
Wisteria has an odd way with images. It opens with an overwrought song (that’s what I like). Landscape shots. Reasonable. Horizons floating off the hilly cattle land. Doubly good. Then it gets awkward and stays awkward. A sign is being staked into the ground with a rock: “PRIVATE WELL NO INDIANS,” it reads. Shit.
From this shot of the sign, we transition to the pregnant matriarch of the family. She’s having a miscarriage and blood is running down her legs. Why this association? Doubly shit. Oh no, we get a stinger affixed with a shot of Jesus on a Cross. We focus back on a children’s play horse. Never to be used. Sad! Then out of the corner of the frame, we see an indigenous man. Oh no, he’s drinking water from the land that was taken from him! He gets yelled at and shot dead for that. Shit, shit, shit.
Then the film finds a woman from the Blackfoot tribe and somehow hatches a love story out of this that goes the rest of the movie. You begin to regret that it’s basically very well shot and neatly compact for such a deeply troubling kind of story. He was just upset at the loss of his wife and child so he killed someone, he tells her, modeling something that may be meant to pass as compassion. So it’s a redemption story and that’s how it goes the rest of the movie. He washes his hands of his murder by caring for and growing to love a woman of the same tribe. I’m out of shits to give.
Sadly a more contemporary Western story shot in this old way would be appealing. There is an economy here and simplicity to everything. Things just happen and lead to other things. There is not very much consequence or grief in it. We don’t have time for too much exposition. It would be nice if it weren’t so thoroughly misled about the kinds of Western stories that are really working out right now and why we want to watch contemporary Westerns. It’s sunny and sometimes pretty, artfully grazing between scenic shots and close-ups of art. Some good visual ideas. Shame.
So, Wisteria probably isn’t the first or best of any kind of Western. It’s just an hour of Wyoming by way of France. It loves the old Westerns more than the people who love old Westerns will ever get to love it. The new audiences seeking new ideas about the West, likewise won’t find anything here. Ultimately, it doesn’t even matter where the film has been shot, it’s distinctly and plainly American, so do not worry about catching an outsider work. The camera loves to flitter around The Grand Union flag. It’s drawn to such old and outmoded things and presents them with an aloof excitement. There is just too little here to really bring it to any audience.