[3 June 2008]
In today’s world of unfettered greed and indifference, hyper-capitalism and increasingly stratified and unbalanced socio-economic parity, can one individual’s rage be heard over the well-oiled noise of the machine? How interdependent are social and personal politics? If you refuse to be apart of a larger system do you risk individual negation? Can you ever escape the immaterial distractions of life?
Explorations of such self-consciously metaphysical questions seem tailor-made for an undergraduate course in philosophy and not, as it were, for a cinemagoer’s personal consumption of entertainment. Yet as incongruent as it may seem, such questions sit at the heart of Looking for Cheyenne, a small, charming, and refreshing film about love, politics, and the whole wide world of mess in between.
The film’s central narrative concerns a Parisian couple as they both face the professional, financial, and personal complexities of modern life. Cheyenne (Mila Dekker), a smart and passionate journalist has been out of work for nearly a year. With rising national unemployment limiting her professional options and a personal refusal to rely on government subsidies for assistance Cheyenne, is at her breaking point. Unable to pay her bills, Cheyenne’s already sparse apartment is set to go black as her heat and electricity has been shut off. Cheyenne’s anger, frustration, and outright indignation at the system sparks a revolutionary force within her as she decides to walk away from the trappings of modern life.
Discarding all that is unnecessary Cheyenne fills a few bags with clothes, gets on her bike, and pedals away from the cosmopolitan abyss. She is headed to the countryside to meet up with Edith (Laurence Côte), an old friend with similar anti-social tendencies who has been living off the land in a remote trailer in the woods. The very real hardships of such an austere life seem not to faze Cheyenne and she embraces her new surroundings with determination and vigor.
Cheyenne’s enthusiasm for her new simple life is tempered and complicated by the heartache and longing she feels for her ex-girlfriend, Sonia (Aurélia Petit). She may have been able to turn her back on Paris, but Cheyenne is struggling with the absence of her lover. Even though the couple has had a volatile past, it is clear both women have become unmoored and are devastated by Cheyenne’s choice to leave.
Sonia, a well-liked and successful high school science teacher, is clearly the calming counterweight to Cheyenne’s tempestuousness. Hurt and confused by their break-up, Sonia tries to find comfort in the emotionless arms of strangers. At first she finds the admiring enthusiasm of Pierre (Malik Zidi), a young and earnest political activist, to be both sweet and comforting. There is genuine affection and interest between these two, but their relationship is more platonic than sexual. She later hooks up with Beatrice (Guilaine Londez), a ruthless and materialistic businesswoman whose attraction to Sonia is selfish, controlling and emotionally limited.
The distinct character contrasts between Pierre and Beatrice are both deliberate and obvious points of plot necessary for Sonia’s personal story of progression. Just as Cheyenne is fighting an ideological battle between the social and personal costs of contemporary life Sonia, too, is torn between the safety of logic and the hazards of emotion. Both women’s desire to be together is palpable, but they are unsure of how to navigate the wide divide between their love and the reality of their differences. At the core, Sonia and Cheyenne are struggling with the emotional costs and discomforts associated with love’s demand for personal sacrifice and compromise.
What happens when the world—the wide, impersonal one and the intimate, deeply personal one—seems so out of control that total collapse appears imminent? Do you run and hide? Capitulate and take comfort in your anonymity? Or, do you take a risk and fight back? What is the price—both for the individual and society at large—of choosing to live a truly independent life? Is such a personal declaration inherently selfish or a subversive political statement? Are the sacrifices you’re willing to make for yourself greater than the ones you can tolerate for the sake of love?
Looking for Cheyenne is a film that is comfortable with the inherent frustration and ambiguity of asking such questions and secure enough to not provide easily digestible answers or platitudes. This is a difficult film to categorize, for it refuses to be boxed in by any simple classification. It is a uniquely personal, flawed, political, ambitious, romantic and intelligent film that blends several cinematic genres (light comedy, fantasy and drama) into a vague yet thoroughly appealing whole. Looking for Cheyenne is one of those rare films whose imperfections actually enhance its overall value and enjoyment.
A film resonant with so many existential and emotional themes could easily slip into a false naïveté and self-important posturing. Thankfully, Valérie Minetto’s light and assured touch as a director (and co-writer) save Looking for Cheyenne from getting lost in such cinematic pretension. By forgoing a traditional (strictly linear) narrative and breaking the fourth wall between her characters and the audience, Minetto provides the film with a much-needed flexibility that allows for such philosophical explorations to feel unforced and natural.
The film’s greatest strength is its modesty. Looking for Cheyenne, though only 88 minutes long, is filled with so many divergent and penetrating thoughts, ideas, themes, critiques, and observations that the movie risks drowning in the wide sea of its own ambition. Luckily, it is balanced by a refreshing, yet measured, insouciance to cinematic conventions and strong performances from its lead actors (especially from Aurélia Petit as Sonia). All of which make Looking for Cheyenne a truly beguiling, authentic, intelligent, emotionally complex, difficult, and uniquely pleasurable film.
Outside of a few select venues in New York and Los Angeles it is highly unlikely most people in North America were able to see Looking for Cheyenne during its limited theatrical run. Hopefully, its recent release on DVD will bring the film the wider audience it most certainly deserves. Whilst the DVD release is essentially bare of extras—only trailers and a photo gallery are included—the gift of this DVD is the film itself.