In Ivul, the third full-length feature from the British director Andrew Kötting (but his first in French), 16-year-old Alex (Jacob Auzanneau) has a hard time keeping his feet on the ground. He is the eldest son in a large Franco-Russian family in the Pyrenees, and he's hot for his big sister, Freya (Adélaïde Leroux). She's about to depart to Russia in search of "poets with drooping moustaches", but before she leaves she wants something from her adoring brother: a kiss. Alex goes straight for the mouth, only to receive a gentle chiding. Freya then stretches herself out on the rough-hewn table in the kitchen of the family chateau, raises her dress and invites Alex to plant his lips on her navel. I think Zero Mostel put it best in The Producers when he said: "A wuma wa wa wa wa!"
Far from sensationalising or dwelling on taboo desire, the film uses it as both a manifestation of the Ivul family's clammy intimacy, and a trifling catalyst for what follows. Although there is much screaming and crying and gnashing of teeth after the siblings' grizzly-bear father, Andrei (Jean-Luc Bideau), bursts in on their cosy get-together, the film spins off suddenly in an unusual direction - upwards, to be precise. Andrei forbids Alex from ever setting foot on his land again, and the boy takes him perversely at his word. He scrambles up the side of the house to the roof, where he furiously yanks the television aerial from its perch. So begins his new life on the rooftops, in the trees, clambering along wires and generally behaving like someone who has seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon a few too many times and believes it to be a documentary.
After his previous features, Gallivant and This Filthy Earth, many of us will have a fair idea of what an Andrew Kötting film entails. With his full-blooded approach to rustic lives, Kötting is our equivalent to Tony Gatlif (Gadjo dilo) or Emir Kusturica (Underground). What distinguishes him from these similarly earthy filmmakers is an elegiac, dreamy Britishness, the sort of half-nostalgic, half-vinegary regard for passing traditions. This survives, by the skin of its crooked and custard-yellow British teeth, in Ivul, despite the story being set far from home.
Kötting's script (written with John Cheetham and Andrew Mitchell) was relocated, and translated into French, only after UK funding proved unattainable. It still feels like a work fraught with post-empire guilt. The Ivuls delight a little too obviously in their dominance over Lek (Xavier Tchili), the labourer whose family has long been in service to them. Once Andrei banishes Alex, the unspoken question is: whose land is it anyway? Alex's resolution never to come back down to earth seems to challenge the idea that all power resides in territory. Up there, the boy carves out a whole space for himself where he is beyond his father's dominion.
The nimble acrobatic work of the young Auzanneau, who has worked with Cirque du Soleil, translates the character's daring rebellion into a physical spectacle that makes you squint in disbelief. That's even without Kötting's whimsical trick of playing parts of the film backwards so that footage of, say, Alex climbing down from the treetops is transformed into an eerily fluid ascent. (Not sure about all that time-lapse photography, which feels like shorthand for "trippy" and "cosmic", no matter which director is using it.)
Texture is more Kötting's strong suit than narrative focus; the film loses sight of, and even interest in, Alex for long periods of time, preferring to concentrate on the chaos that ensues in his absence. But Kötting's a dab hand at creating sly effects in the editing. The integration of archive monochrome material into the main body of the film is neatly done, and suggests a history far richer and deeper than anything to which the Ivuls can lay claim. For the most part, these inserts depict quaint village games, pastoral tableaux, shots of woodland in winter. Once in a while, Kötting will go in for something more provocative, such as the humorous rhyme between footage of a mighty oak toppling to the forest floor and the paralysed Andrei being slowly and agonisingly raised in his orthopaedic bed.