In just five films, James Gray has managed to make his mark in American and European cinema. The Lost City of Z should not …
In just five films, James Gray has managed to make his mark in American and European cinema. The Lost City of Z shouldn’t question his talent.
Travel as migration is a concept that fascinates James Gray. This was the case in Little Odessa , chronicle of an eventful return to New York, but also in the recent The Immigrant . A theme that makes sense, as the director always articulates his works around the notion of choice. For his latest film, the native of the Big Apple is based on real facts to try to get out of his urban fauna.
Respected British Colonel Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is also an explorer in search of glory. Sent to the Amazon for the Royal Geographical Society of England in 1906, he is convinced that he has found a lost city, never trodden by the white man. He will then do everything to prove his discovery to researchers who are not completely convinced of his good faith. Obsessed by the signs of this city he names “Z”, and despite the seething news of the First World War, he will do anything to return there.
Filming this slow dive into the jungle was a real challenge for the filmmaker, who has always described himself as an admirer of Coppola. Besides the technical problems inherent in this kind of project, the cinematographic challenge could frighten. However, the director manages to meet it by giving life to this green desert, far from its graying concrete. Once again we find the golden image of Darius Khondji, the director of photography, which perfectly matches the sought-after tropical hues. The choice of the 35 mm format also confers great authenticity to the image. It’s a fact, Gray also knows how to film nature.
The inspirations are numerous and the director pays homage to his masters in the form of elegant winks, without being supported. This is how Fitzcarraldo ‘s Amazonian opera or Aguirre ‘ s obsession for the lost cities , the wrath of god resurfaces . It is also impossible not to think of Apocalypse Now , as the river represents a central element of the story. Unlike Coppola or Herzog, the jungle is not necessarily linked to some form of mysticism. We suffer there, meet people, but it does not represent an enlightened experience. In this sense, the film can seem almost academic. But above all, it is the scene of a reflection on the inexhaustible thirst for research which drives some men.
Gray also excels when he describes the state of mind of these adventurers, most of whom are white collar. Once back in England, Fawcett has to flex his elbows to be taken seriously. If his interest in research is real, the film emphasizes above all the egocentricity and the desire for glory of the majority of his colleagues. It also discusses the logistical and economic challenges of these trips, and provides a better understanding of the media turmoil surrounding the expeditions. First attracted by the titles, the hero ends up neglecting everything for pure discovery. A renunciation rather well embodied by Hunnam and Robert Pattinson, truly convincing in his role of disillusioned sidekick .
These comings and goings in the jungle lead to an extremely dense work, especially as the director also examines the explorer’s complex relationship with his family. He thus poses the difficult question of building a home when one of the protagonists is never there. James Gray even allows himself a rather successful digression on the conflict of 14-18, where Fawcett served in France.
This warlike interlude completes a fresco that looks like an epic. The accumulation of stories, however, tends to slow the pace of the film, which despite many ellipses, would have benefited from a slightly more nervous editing. These short lengths diminish in an almost dreamlike final scene, which departs from the classicism of the whole.
With The Lost City of Z , James Gray changes scenery, but not method. By plunging into the heart of the Amazon jungle, he continues to explore the themes that are close to his heart while delivering a great adventure film. With the academicism that we know him, he analyzes a bubbling time when the Earth still remained to be discovered. A reference point to its masters, the film develops an intimate reflection on the meaning of research. Camera placed over the water, it reminds us that the journey is sometimes more beautiful than the destination.