A languorous pastoral comedy about sexual fluidity among spouses and offspring on an army base, Benjamin Crotty’s feature debut, Fort Buchanan, is a legit Franco-American lulu. It’s an occasionally absurdist 16-millimeter study of fidelity, loneliness, improvised community, and the good passage of time: the ripening of people into fuller selfhood. Shot over two years and structured as a tour of the four seasons, the film takes as its overt subject the quite French manner in which these wives and husbands get off when left behind by their deployed military spouses. (Crotty was born in the States but raised in Paris; his cast and the film are most assuredly French.)
A late Updike story from Licks of Love opens with the faculty of a small New Hampshire college surviving their isolation “by clustering together like a ball of snakes in a desert cave,” and cheery early scenes here of the women — and a man or two — entwined in their swimwear suggest that relaxed practicality. Crotty’s camera lingers over weeds and thighs and first exploratory caresses, and the talk is ribald and flirty, with everyone sharing their private names for their sex organs. Meanwhile, the most eager of the wives (Pauline Jacquard) endeavors to allure the daughter (Iliana Zabeth) of two gay men, recently eighteen and unlucky in love herself.
Happiness proves trickier and more elusive than all that dewy springtime possibility. The seductions are distinguished by such breezy brazenness that it’s painful, later, as the months pass and some of these souls can’t get it started, neither with paramours nor those increasingly distant spouses. Roger (Andy Gillet), the rare character here who indulges in the flesh of nobody to whom he isn’t wed, agonizes that his husband, Frank (David Baiot), no longer exhibits much ardor for him. The tangled gang of lovers egg passive Roger on, encouraging him to just be the one to initiate sex with Frank, and the result is a heartbreaker.
Crotty favors incident over plot, but the growth in these people that we witness over the film’s quick 65 minutes offers something richer than the satisfactions of narrative. And for all its Shelleyan woodsiness, Fort Buchanan also offers brisk, lively comedy, even in frames packed with idling characters: While the women lounge and gab in the foreground, the men box behind and above them. The screen trembles with their conflicting energies. Sometimes there’s even a pratfall or an evocative freeze-frame — or, my favorite, a delicious and comic close-up of a chocolate-chip cookie entering a lushly lipsticked mouth. It’s squirrelly, surprising, and elusive, but this beaut of a debut is no curio.
Written and directed by Benjamin Crotty
Opens February 5, Film Society of Lincoln Center