Given the pervasiveness of prequels, it’s not so unusual that French director Philippe Ramos’ second feature imagines the early life of Moby Dick‘s dark, enigmatic Captain Ahab. (Melville provides scant backstory himself, but alludes to Ahab’s orphaned childhood and late marriage.) But Captain Ahab (which won Best Director and a FIPRESCI award at Locarno last year) is far from the typical plot-in-reverse exploitation of popular narrative; conceived as a tribute to mid-19th century Americana (particularly Romanticism and Mark Twain), it’s a personal meditation on childhood, nature, and fate. Like the book, Ramos presents his protagonist through the eyes of an observer (five of them, to be exact, corresponding to one act each) and Ahab registers more in tragic, emotional terms than strictly psychological ones. Thankfully, this prequel offers impressions and suggestions that expand the viewer’s imagination rather than a simple catalogue of references that collapse into a finite story.
Captain Ahab is lush and scenic; its measured pace, lyrical narration, and sense of irony (not to mention its misadventurous hero) could all be compared to Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, but it’s a more intimate film, emphasizing the life of a boy who never truly knows a home as he’s traded from hand to hand. Ahab’s mother dies in childbirth (the film’s first shot is her naked, white pelvis–literally where his story begins—as she is covered in a white shroud; throughout, white remains a symbolic color for Ahab) thus setting in motion a series of caretakers: an oafish father, a puritanical aunt, a cruel dandy, a seaside pastor. Each person who adopts Ahab attempts to remake him into his or her image, so it’s no surprise that the hidden passions of this smoldering youth eventually erupt into maniacal obsession when he becomes master of the high seas. But Moby Dick prevents even this identity and status, nearly fatally wounding Ahab and tasking the aging wanderer to a final confrontation.
It’s a wonder that Ramos recreates New York’s Adirondack wilderness by shooting in France and Sweden, but he does so very effectively, inspired by a scouting trip he took to America and his use of rural locations that feature winding rivers and endless forests. It’s an enchanting landscape evoking the Romantic tone of the film; nature is idealized and revitalizing. But Ramos also embraces contrasts–warm or selfish characters against Ahab’s remoteness, exteriors and interiors, romanticism and realism. For the latter, he quotes Huckleberry Finn in at least one scene, when criminals accost the runaway Ahab in his river journey towards freedom. Some of the film’s most vivid lyricism occurs after this, when Ahab is carried downstream in his small boat, surrounded by the riches of the natural world in a prolonged sequence that immediately recalls Laughton’s Night of the Hunter.
Laughton’s film seems a likely source for another inspiration: the iris that occasionally frames the action, reminiscent of a telescope or porthole, but also references early cinema (like Laughton evoking Griffith), reinforcing the pioneering spirit of Ramos’ story. The film’s sole whaling sequence (apart from the climax) is either taken from early-century “actuality” footage or made to look like it, complete with tinted monochrome, false projection speed, and copious scratches. If Ramos equates Romanticism with Whitman, why not cinema with its early practitioners? The comparison seems apt.
The film is an enticing compendium of contrasts and ellipses befitting its ensemble structure. Like Melville’s Ishmael, the narrators in the film relay plot points they don’t always personally experience, thus throwing the narrative into a realm of potentiality that’s perched between fact and fiction. Ramos’ eclectic score—including English folk music, classical pieces, and sailing ditties—is particularly evocative in establishing the mood without insisting on aesthetic unity. Likewise, his plot starts and stops to highlight intriguing moments in Ahab’s life (and not necessarily the most obvious), sometimes recounting his journey in detail and other times skipping ahead thirty years. (Interestingly, Ramos makes Ahab’s connection to the sea a late-blooming affair, represented visually through a striking image of Ahab sleeping under a beached whale skeleton; like the biblical Jonah—a story central to Melville as well as Ramos—the boy finds his calling in the belly of a whale.) These varied tonalities and ellipses create an impressionistic narrative with a lingering power; artfully disjointed, the story beckons the viewer to muse and interpret much like the whale beckons Ahab.