(Tony Gatlif, France/Japan, 2002)


There are twenty-four-hour marathons, in various parts of the world, devoted to science fiction cinema. But the marathon I would dearly love to attend would be a non-stop unspooling of every Tony Gatlif film, from his earliest (La Tête en ruines, 1975) up to the most recent.

Gatlif’s works form what the French call a film-fleuve – a river of film. They deliberately blur one into the next. Heartrending glimpses into Gypsy life, snapshots of rich traditions in song and dance, timeless tales of love, family, loyalty and death: each new film revisits these recurring obsessions from a slightly different angle, exploring a new mood.

Above all, Gatlif is the greatest exponent of a peculiarly modern sort of musical. He has developed a remarkable technique for staging and capturing the spectacle of musical performance, often in homely settings, restaurants, streets or fields. No detail escapes his eye and ear: the split-second eye signal that one player passes to another or the tapping foot of an old man listening in the audience are just as important as the starring flight of a soloist or the centre-stage turn by a dancer.

Unsurprisingly, Gatlif is so involved in the musical aspects of his films that he often co-writes or arranges the songs.

Gatlif’s masterpiece remains Latcho Drom (1993). But none of his films are weak, and all have extraordinary sequences, like the death scene set to a musique concret of engine noises and pounding tin in Vengo (2001). He aims for a lyrical fusion of song, story and environment. Rather than being detachable attractions as in the Hollywood tradition, the musical sequences overlap into and generate everything that occurs.

Swing is a relatively minor Gatlif film, but nonetheless a joyous and compelling experience. It traces the precious experience of a city boy, Max (Oscar Copp), on holiday in the Alsace countryside. He falls in with a community of Manouche Gypsies, characterised by their virtuosity at the guitar-based jazz made famous by Django Reinhardt.

Max forms a special attachment to Swing (Lou Rech), the daughter of guitarist and music teacher Miraldo (Tchavolo Schmitt). Swing is introduced to us as a boyish figure, spitting and pulling a neat scam. For Gatlif, her story is of a woman emerging from "childhood ambiguity" into femininity. On screen, this process is delicate and tentative. The film captures a blessed state of innocent romance that is rare in contemporary cinema.

Ultimately, and somewhat abruptly, Swing takes a dark turn. This, too, is part of Gatlif’s cultivation of folk wisdom: death and sorrow can strike a community at any time. But what of the life-affirming, multi-cultural possibilities unleashed by Max and Swing’s mutual tenderness? Gatlif will surely carry its echo into his next film.

MORE Gatlif: Children of the Stork, Exiles

© Adrian Martin November 2002

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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