Chasing Butterflies, 1992

At a picturesque, provincial town in the French countryside, a train arrives at the station to the unusual sight of a maharaja (Sacha Piatigorsky) disembarking his private car and being greeted with minor fanfare by a small, receptive crowd accompanying a deliberately mannered esquire named Henri der Lampadere (Alexandre Tscherkassoff), before the dignitary is chauffeured away to der Lampadere’s estate for a holiday visit. Meanwhile, in another part of town, a peripatetic elderly woman named Solange (Narda Blanchet), whisks through the routine of her morning errands in the village – buying fresh leeks from a produce cart merchant and a baguette from the boulangerie – before returning home in time to wake her neighbor, a disorganized, alcoholic priest named Andre (Emmanuel de Chauvigny) with a chronic hangover, for morning church services at the local parish (who, upon arriving late, quickly deflects the scriptural reading to a parishioner conveniently standing nearby as he sits down to rest and collect his thoughts). After mass, Solange then travels on her trusty bicycle to a grand chateau where a group of camped out, incessantly chanting hari-krishnans and an errant tenant farmer with a noisy, oversized tractor seem to have overrun the estate grounds from the eccentric chateau owner, Solange’s frail, wheelchair-bound, gun toting, sharp-shooting cousin, Marie-Agnes de Bayonette (Thamara Tarassachvili) and her docile housekeeper, Valerie (Pierette Pompom Bailhache). The muted, oddly surreal opening images set an appropriately idiosyncratic and surreal tone to the droll, but incisive interconnected vignettes into the everyday affairs and chagrined reality of fading aristocracy, as the neighboring chateau owners, der Lampadere and de Bayonette, cordially engage in petty territoriality, concoct ways to finance the expensive upkeep of their deteriorating ancestral property, fend off greedy opportunists eager to swindle the gullible, idle rich on the sale of priceless antiques languishing in their chateaus, and resist the ever-increasing temptation to sell the lucrative property to international investors.

Georgian born, Soviet expatriate Otar Iosseliani, having studied under famed Russian silent film pioneer Aleksandr Dovzhenko at the All Russia State Institute for Cinematography (VGIK), expounds on his cinematic mentor’s innately poetic narrative and precise attention to indigenous specificity to create a lyrical and wickedly observant, farcical social comedy in Chasing Butterflies. Unfolding in elegant long shots with the near wordless – though not silent – physical precision and empathetic situational absurdity that recalls the films of Jacques Tati (whom Ioselliani greatly admired and immediately sought out after immigrating to France), Ioselliani’s self-described abstract comedy captures the entrenched – and increasingly outmoded – societal milieu of the bourgeoisie and idle aristocracy in modern day France through implicit irony, incisive observation of cultural minutiae, and patently offbeat surrealism: the news broadcast of random terrorist acts that presages an indirectly consequential bombing (in an uncoincidental scenario that evokes the social irreverence of Luis Buñuel, specifically, his final film, That Obscure Object of Desire); the repeated sounds of a ploddingly downbeat, musically lethargic brass and percussion band that contribute to the film’s carnivalesque atmosphere and situational absurdity; the cursory, tongue-in-cheek juxtaposition of a woman of African descent, the resourceful Caprice der Lampadere’s (Maimouna N’Diaye) guided tour through her forefathers’ family estate; Solange’s morning routine that is subsequently mirrored in the humorous shot of a group of Japanese businessmen on bicycles. Through understatedly eloquent and wry human observation, Chasing Butterflies is as an evocative metaphor for society’s ephemeral, untenable, and self-exhausting cycle of materialistic competition and privileged one-upmanship.

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