A mercenary walks into the den of a woman and her masked crew. They’re hoping to exchange French luxuries for diamonds, but the mercenary scams them. A classic fight with the sparks of gunpowder ensues, delivering the masculine toughness that encompasses most of the western genre. But the scene quickly shifts to a grand house where women outnumber men five to one. These characters are living and witnessing the savage state of a country that has resulted in a devastating civil war. Unlike most civil war films, the perspective here in writer-director David Perrault’s film is that of French settlers. But along with this unique viewpoint, Savage State can be added to the small canon of female westerns. Containing the same grit and violence as any film set on the American frontier, but it's one that’s wholeheartedly and unabashedly feminine.
It’s Missouri in 1863, home to a family of French settlers. Edmond (Bruno Todeschini) and Madeleine (Constance Dollé) have made their home in upper-middle-class American society with their three beautiful daughters, Esther (Alice Isaaz), Justine (Déborah François), and Abigaëlle (Maryne Bertieaux), who are the image of southern belles. French settlers at this time were instructed by Napoleon III to take a strictly neutral position in the conflict tearing apart the North and the South. But an order is created by a Union Army general that states that women must be compliant, welcoming to all soldiers, or risk being treated as a prostitute. This law was enforced in New Orleans at the time, but when Union soldiers crash a ball and Esther refuses to dance with one of them, violence ensues. The violence and entitlement the soldiers impose against women comes too close to home and the family decides to flee on the next boat to France. And who will help them, but the same mercenary introduced in the film’s opening scenes. Victor (Kevin Janssens) has been employed by Edmond in the past. He’s trusted and tasked with accompanying them on their journey for guidance and protection. But when his past misdeeds catch up with him, he risks the family’s future and their safety.
This is a large, character-driven piece, and it’s impossible to speak of the film without acknowledging characters and their importance. While Victor is the catalyst for much of the narrative, the female characters are the focus, especially Esther. The camera focuses on her the most, and Isaaz is a formidable presence on screen, much like other French actresses of her generation like Léa Seydoux and Adèle Haenel. Esther’s character isn’t built around her relationship with a man, and her only defining trait isn’t that she’s a damsel in distress, which is common with female characters in westerns. She’s self-assured, outspoken, curious, and daring. And although she and Victor do develop a romance, it feels of no importance compared to the relationship she has with her family, especially her sisters and their maid, Layla (Armelle Abibou). The best scenes in the film are by far the ones Esther shares with her sisters. These scenes are intimate as they recall their memories of Paris or when one sister confides in Esther about having been in love with a woman. The latter is a touching scene about a subject that isn’t overblown or made into a big deal for dramatics. There’s a comforting level of acceptance.
The most affecting character, apart from Esther and her sisters, is Layla. While many civil war films focus on slavery, Savage State only mentions it once, as Victor wrongly assumes Layla is a slave. She’s emancipated and paid for her work, with Edmond referring to slave owners as barbarians. However, she’s certainly still marginalized, and the film isn’t free of depictions of racism. The family’s matriarch scoffs at Layla’s religious beliefs and culture and orders her to do things like walk first over a cliff’s edge. Perhaps there’s some jealousy there as Madeleine’s children and even Edmond seem to love and respect Layla more. And Abibou delivers an amazing monologue, confronting Madeleine about the lack of love she shows her family and calls her out on her extrinsic religiosity. While Madeleine’s belief in God is called out as disingenuous, Layla’s certainly isn’t as the film shows her practicing Vodou (or Voodoo) and speaking with the curious Esther about ancient spirits of her African diasporic religion like the Marassa Jumeaux. It’s an interesting picture of a religion not often depicted on film.
Of course, we would be remiss not to mention the film’s villain, Bettie (Kate Moran), the woman Victor has a gunfight with at the beginning of the film. She’s an absolutely badass cowpuncher. It’s not often we see a gunslinging woman on horseback, especially one who runs her own gang (who are especially frightening in their masks resembling the man from The Strangers). She resembles Emma from Johnny Guitar in her motivation, which is fueled by lust and anger. Moran is a viper and deranged as the character. There’s a scene where she dances erotically around a fire with her crew, presenting the closeness of a cult like Rose the Hat and the True Knot from Doctor Sleep. One of the more disappointing aspects of the narrative is the lack of insight into the relationship between her and Victor. It’s hinted that there was a romance, but nothing is ever explained about their past, how they came to know each other, and what drove them apart.
It’s easy to assume that a film whose narrative is mainly about a long journey taken across barren terrain, green hills, and rocky mountains, with moments of respite in between would feel like a slog, but Perrault’s film is so well-written that there’s rarely an uninteresting moment. (However, giving it a little trim wouldn’t have hurt.) If the Oscars chose to nominate foreign films in their technical categories, it would no doubt be a contender. There are a couple of shots by cinematographer Christophe Duchange that are breathtaking in their stillness and beauty: a symbolic shot of an eagle taking flight, and a shot of the sisters tossing away their innocence in the form of white dresses falling slowly down a cliff’s edge. Each frame is alluring in its own way, and that’s complemented, especially in the first half, by Florian Sanson’s opulent production design and Véronique Gely’s elegant costuming. (If period pieces with extravagant ball gowns are your thing, you’re in luck.) It’s also not often we come across a western with a score as calming and subtly operatic as the one here by Sébastien Perrault.
Savage State is such a well-crafted, female-driven piece of western grandeur, something that we haven’t had since Netflix’s Godless. The film’s final standoff is reminiscent of that in the series as the women assemble to protect themselves against men in a blaze of fury and gunsmoke. The film is stirring and stylish in all its feminine splendor.
Movie Score: 4/5