"Le Pélican" is Gérard Blain's second directed film. It follows the understated, emotionally contained "Les Amis", and it continues the gifted director's personal approach to telling a story. A film of spare dialog, "Le Pélican" is almost purely cinematic, relying on the power of image and action to make its points. Similarly to "Les Amis" and his later masterpiece "A Child in the Crowd", this film is infused with longing and melancholy. In the manner of Blain's idol Robert Bresson, many unimportant details are left out of the narrative and several lines of dialog are used to telescope the action so that the viewer is forced to concentrate on the protagonist, Paul (played by Blain himself). Very little of the character's feelings are articulated in words, but the viewer can easily imagine what is going on in Paul's mind. Unlike a Bresson film, "Le Pélican" gives us a main character who is transparent. There is little or no ambiguity about Paul's psychology or motives, nothing existential. Early on, we see him reluctant to take on a job which involves a serious risk, but which promises a big financial reward. He takes the job and we immediately jump to the consequences: prison for nine years in America. His wife has remarried, to a rich man, and Paul has given up his rights to his son, Marc. Once released, Paul returns to France and begins his attempt to find his son. Following them to Lugano in Switzerland, Paul spies on the family in their luxurious villa, calculating ways to gain access to Marc. After much frustration, he finally grabs the boy in the street and they spend an idyllic day together. Paul wins over Marc as his friend, but the boy never really understands who is father is, and Paul can't tell him why he left all those years ago. As expected, the police had been alerted and Paul is soon tracked down. He manages to elude arrest and we are left assuming he has not given up his need to connect with Marc.
The essence of the film is watching Paul go through his ordeal of seeking, finding and, at least temporarily, giving up his son. Because of the spare, understated style, only rarely allowing actors to truly emote, the film has a strongly objective quality. Does the title refer to the large water bird that is said to destroy itself to care for its young? We are never told. Whether one can truly identify with Paul and his dilemma is likely to be very personal. For some, this will be an exercise in style, beautifully wrought in every way, but perhaps a bit too emotionally removed for real catharsis.
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