Along the roads, the inhabited world of “Nomadland”

It happens that what surrounds a film ends up taking too much importance compared to the film itself – including when this environment is legitimate, and favorable.

Legitimate, the attention generated by the director since Nomadland began in Venice, where he received a well-deserved Golden Lion, the extraordinary harvest of awards that culminated with the three most prestigious Oscars (film, director, main actress), certainly is .

Frances McDormand and Chloé Zhao on the set of Nomadland, film born from the collaboration between two women. | Searchlight Pictures

How legitimate is the visibility suddenly granted to the career of this young Chinese director who left to live in the United States by going to shoot her first two feature films in a Sioux Lakota reserve, the admirable The songs that my brothers taught me and The Rider, duly identified by major festivals and film buffs without departing from a certain confidentiality.

However, it is to this director that Disney had entrusted, before the glory linked to Nomadland, the realization of a blockbuster from the Marvel universe, The Eternals, slated for release on November 3, propelling it to a whole new level of visibility.

To which was added the violent controversy unleashed in China against the young woman from Beijing, accused of having slandered her homeland, a skirmish of the Sino-American confrontation that stuck on both sides of the Pacific on the eve of the Oscars ceremony.

All this, and the obvious fact that part of the honors bestowed on Chloé Zhao are due to a desire to display about a non-white woman and, in particular in the United States where Asians are subjected to brutal forms of racism, of a Chinese woman, should in no way obscure or minimize this decisive fact: Nomadland was, from its first screening, and remains today first and foremost an excellent film.

Born from the collaboration between two women, the director and the main actress, also a producer Frances McDormand, the film accompanies Fern’s journey.

Forced by a chain of economic and personal circumstances as destructive as they are banal to leave her home in a small town in deep America, this energetic sixty-year-old discovers the nomadic life, punctuated by seasonal jobs, in a van that is both her vehicle. and his home.

Other ways of living

Above all, she discovers the people of those who live in this way on the fringes of America, and there develops a vast repertoire of practices and relationships which displace, in a peaceful critical manner, almost all of the dominant relationships calibrated by society. American – and for the most part given as a model to the whole world.

These nomads of the XXIe century, neither trashy nor depressive despite difficult living conditions, deploy local responses at the level of individuals or small groups, both among themselves and in front of those (settled families, employers, various authorities) to whom they have case.

The decision not to dwell on the violence and horrors that inevitably also accompany these journeys certainly makes them a fable, but above all a gesture of consideration for women and men so often locked in miserable visions.

With Nomadland, we can speak of a kind of diplomacy of representation, which does not include any artificial happy ending but chooses to highlight the resources of its protagonists rather than insisting on the criticism of the system, however legitimate and necessary it may be. here by the way.

It is as if Zhao and McDormand had preferred to whisper that other ways of existing are possible, without resorting to the great whistle-blowing organs, even if it is obvious that this world is a violent and unjust world.

A hybrid film

The presence on the screen of an actress known among a large number of protagonists who are themselves people who actually experience the situations described – a device that we perceive when watching the film without the need for peripheral information come to establish it – actively participate in this process.

This shared presence embodies the hybrid nature of Nomadland, a fictional story inserted in a documentary approach, which is based on the book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by journalist Jessica Bruder, describing the lives of people, most of them relatively elderly, homeless and thrown onto the roads by the 2008 crash.

Thus is reconfigured what the filmmaker has been implementing since her beginnings: multiple assemblages of realistic elements inspired by the existence of people appearing on the screen and composed narrative elements, in a manner that is both dynamic and respectful. .

The attention to people, to faces, to the uses of words, to the meaning of gestures is the real dramatic spring of the film, beyond the sometimes tragic, sometimes comical, often moving or poetic situations that Fern meets on his way, and especially with the inhabitants of trailer camp where she spends a lot of time, but which cannot be a lasting installation.

The unique art of the filmmaker finds here the possibility of expressing herself, this art which consists in inventing the means of cinema capable of making sensitive a territory which is indissolubly a physical space and of people. In Nomadland, it is “land” which is the most important, on condition that it is understood as an inhabited space, and even doubly inhabited.

A world inhabited by women and men, legends and myths. | Searchlight Pictures

Inhabited by men and women, young and old but more frequently old, and most often far from the criteria of physical ideal and lifestyles promoted by the formatted, consumerist and alienating ideology of the American Way of Life . Inhabited above all by the poor, the tired, the offside – but not outside life, nor outside the world.

And, in the same movement, this space is inhabited by stories, mythologies, imaginaries, including, paradoxically, those who built the said American Way of Life: the frontier, the pioneer communities, the imagery of a foundational purity.

It is also, in many ways, inhabited by their critical counterpoints that constituted the alternative, libertarian, counter-culture and interbreeding practices, from Thoreau and Emerson to the Beatnik movement and its many alternative suites, including the great migrations due. in the crash of 1929 including Grapes of Wrath (the book and the film) has entered memory.

The details of everyday life, the effects of the social catastrophe caused by the carnivorous delusions of the world of finance, the long history of the country, the imaginary stories on which it is built thus weave a very flexible framework, which also makes room to meteors, to the sky, to rocks, to snow, according to a sensitivity to nature experienced as one of the dimensions of reality, on an equal footing with the others.

A hospital film

If the film is extremely hospitality towards its spectators as it is benevolent towards its characters, the landscape which it deploys is in no way simplifying.

Multiple layers of culture, history, behavior, ways of making society, including with the desert or the sunlight, are superimposed on it without any covering the others, over the course of Fern’s encounters.

Devoid of style or handle effects, Chloé Zhao’s art of directing is capable of welcoming and sharing an astonishing wealth of affects and ways of being, which resonate well beyond the otherwise so concrete situation of the inhabitants of Nomadland.


by Chloé Zhao

avec Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Charlene Swankie, Linda May, Carl R. Hugues


Duration: 1h48

Released on June 9, 2021

Source: by

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