In the words of co-director Anna Falguères, “If history is always written by the victorious, Pompei is a marvellous counterexample.” She was, of course, referring to the lost city and its immortalization through a natural disaster, but her words apply just as well to the microcosm (of a time and place detached from society and heritage) depicted in her identically-titled debut feature. A collaborative effort between Falguères and American filmmaker John Shank, Pompei is an exploration of the collective psyche of the misfit inhabitants of a remote town, a glimpse of civilization away from civilization, where conventional social norms take a backseat in favour of rebellious baser instincts and rigid communal traditions. Filmed in naturally-lit anamorphic cinemascope, with long sluggish takes capturing the dullness of the children’s day-to-day lives, it is a unique and sensual coming-of-age tale where the fleeting uncertainty of adolescence becomes a product of the sparse environment the kids grow up in.
During some unspecified period in history, in an unnamed semi-deserted village (presumably somewhere along the outskirts of Pompei city), young Victor (Aliocha Schreider) and his little brother Jimmy (Auguste Wilhelm) struggle to eke out a living on their own in a tough community of abandoned children and young adults. The absence of parent-figures to guide or restrain them allows the kids a heightened sense of freedom of self-expression, while also resulting in the existence of coarse and primitive rituals and patterns that shape their turbulent psychology. Victor and his best-friend Toxou (Vincent Rottiers) are among the few elders in their community, doing odd-jobs and conning unsuspecting outsiders to earn money, while also frequenting the local nightclub. Jimmy and his friends, growing up without a mother or a father, end up idolizing these grown-ups and mimicking their ill-formed habits and ideals. Smoking is considered cool ― as is explained by little Jimmy to a friend of his ― and so is lustfully gaping at the fairer sex, as we see the little kids lighting up cigarettes and basking in the promiscuity of their peers.
Victor and Toxou capitalize on the children’s bourgeoning sexual curiosity by hosting peep-shows, where the kids pool their savings to watch the adults have sex through circular holes on the wall or the window-panes of a car. It isn’t just some free leisurely activity either, but almost like a ritual where the kids must transition from being the spectator to the one engaging in the act, once they are considered to have ‘come of age’ (at the tender age of 15). Jimmy spends his days in anticipation of his 15th birthday, while also carrying some form of suppressed revulsion that surfaces much later. Notions of love, intimacy, and relationships seem to be disappearing in this degenerated society of youngsters growing up without proper happily-married families, being replaced instead by voracious physical lust and the commodification of the same. The kids’ obsession with the peep-shows shows the triumph of voyeuristic pleasure over direct social engagement, a craving for second-hand intimacy to satiate a deficiency of the real thing. It is with the sudden arrival of Billie (a brilliantly minimalist Garance Marillier), with her vulnerable beauty and headstrong ideals, that the stagnating community receives an almost-spiritual jolt which culminates in a devastating act of violence.
She brings with her a spark of liberation, not just sexual but also ideological, to this monotonous (and sometimes barbaric) way of life that the kids and adults have so unquestionably accepted. Billie is quite attracted to the untamed and outspoken nature of Victor, as is he infatuated by her demure beauty and individualistic personality. A genuine romance develops between the two, in stark contrast to their emotionally barren surroundings. As the guys spend their days excavating local archaeological sites (likely remnants of the ancient buried city of Pompei) for valuable artefacts, Billie and Victor’s relationship becomes the talk of the town and the newfound object of the children’s lustful fantasies and gossip. One day Billie stands up to their dehumanizing practice of letting the kids watch them having sex, her defiance sparking a rift between Toxou and Victor, the former growing resentful and the latter now forced to choose between his old friend and his newfound soulmate.
Falguères and Shank have deliberately conceived a roster of characters defined by their rootlessness, without any markers of their past identities to help us contextualize their shifting moods and peculiar behavioural traits. Simultaneously, Pompei shows a world dissociated from the forward march of time as well ― devoid of telltale signs of modernity like cellphones and gadgets ― an organic existence situated in the lap of unforgiving nature. The tragic lack of familial love in their lives manifests in the form of thoughtless sexual escapades bursting with repressed passion. As the young ones brandish smokes to fit in with the elders ― as if merely imitating adolescence might help them get there faster ― the adults spend their days digging away amongst the ruins for scraps and antiques, an almost allegorical search for their lost past to show them a way into the future.
The filmmakers have imbued Pompei with a keen sense of intrigue and pathos, with close-ups of faces that conceal more than they let on, and very patient minimalist editing choices so as not to disrupt the laidback pace of life in the community. These characters live on the fringes of society, with an absence of familiar markers of culture lending the narration a timeless quality. Along with the gorgeous low-light cinematography and an intermittent melodic score, it features a stripped-down sound design that respects the overbearing presence of silence, carefully composed to give a dreamy-yet-tactile quality to these scenes of fractured lives. Falguères and Shank exhibit surprising restraint with the screenplay, allowing enough space within the narrative to let the viewers fuse their own imagination and interpretation of these characters with the plot progression.
Pompei is heartbreaking and also somewhat disquieting in its observation of kids growing up into broken shells of men and women, reflecting the many intimate unspoken ties between youth and adolescence with almost effortless grace. Working our sense of empathy on an almost subliminal level, it conjures a striking visual and aural landscape that brings out the tumultuous uncertainty and emotional dissonance governing the children’s cognitive development, while the adults grope in the darkness seemingly past the point of repair. The end product feels almost cathartic, despite the total absence of melodrama, with the psychological devastation of the humans mirroring the age-old environmental devastation of their city Pompei.