In what way, both documented and poetic, evoke on the big screen the destruction of the founding myth of the American nation through the disappearance of the birds then populating the sky of a ‘garden of Eden’ before the industrial era ? Jacques Loeuille, trained at the Beaux-Arts and Le Fresnoy schools, a documentary filmmaker particularly sensitive to the history of the landscape and the environment, takes us on a journey in the footsteps of the French ornithologist Jean-Jacques Audubon (1785-1851), at the the thread of a thirty-year exploration in Louisiana to paint there life-size all the species of birds of the New Continent. From the source of the Mississippi to the delta, the author – also a screenwriter and cinematographer – is not content to reconnect, two centuries later, with the journey and discoveries of Audubon, but revisits the political birth of a nation, built on the obliteration of native peoples and the ruins of a nature of great beauty of which the naturalistic paintings of the ornithologist give striking glimpses.
Through the deep voice of the actor and playwright Jean-François Sivadier, the commentary off in the form of friendly familiarity, links the past experience to the transformations of the landscapes crossed, attested by engravings and photographs of the time and views of today. The address to the passionate ornithologist also links his tireless inventory work to the fate of the peoples and cultures ‘crushed’ by the new arrivals. Thus “Birds of America”, fabulous back and forth between sky and earth, past and present, birds and men, playing on several registers of images, subtly mixing sounds of nature, noises of city and human voices, modulations of a musical score with dark lyrical accents, does he offer us a profound work, conducive to the rebirth within us of a submerged world and to political reflection on human action, the cause of this ruin.
An ornithologist in the ‘bird paradise’, painter and archivist
The travel companion, imagined by the director, beyond the two centuries which separate them, in an overall shot of the industrialized shores of the Mississippi today, undertakes a fictitious exchange with the ornithologist Jean-Jacques Audubon who has come from France discovering (and painting) the birds of the New Continent at the very beginning of the 19th century. A familiarity in these terms: ‘It’s paradise. The sky is pure. The limpid wave…As your frail boat advances…’. Thus Jacques Loeille then imagines the landscapes, immense, cypresses and maple woods and other marvels of a nature arousing curiosity and encouraging exploration. He sees the explorer grabbing his brushes, sinking into the nearby woods, dazzled by the spectacle of such a profusion of creatures, such as he has never seen on the old continent. We perceive to what extent this abundant nature, rich in various species of birds, resonates with the passion of the ornithologist.
To the point of devoting thirty years of his life in America to painting life-size hundreds of varieties of birds. In addition to the upstrokes and downstrokes of the line, the precision of the details, the chromatic variations of coats and foliage, the contrasts (blue, orange, white, pink of life, green and brown of plants), the evolution of his way of painting and the progressive entanglement of the central subject (the bird) with other elements of fauna and flora, allied to the suggestion of movement, give a living dimension to a so-called naturalistic pictoriality that is a priori frozen. Moreover, the plates of Audubon – some of which are kept in some American museums of natural history, carefully displayed before our eyes by the hand of a curator – testify, thanks to the sharp eye and the graphic talent of their author, of the existence of magnificent species of which we no longer find traces today. Like the traveling dove, Martha (named after the wife of President Roosevelt, the only one to have legislated much later in favor of natural parks and for the protection of nature). Like the ivory-billed woodpecker which Audubon documents by painting and naming its tiny varieties (striped-backed woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, white-faced woodpecker, etc.).
From the individual scientific adventure to the unveiling of another history of America
But “Birds of America” goes beyond the dreamy, contemplative, nostalgic evocation of an extraordinary existence entirely dedicated to faithful capture and reproduction, in a painting that is both rigorous and inventive, birds of all shapes and colors populate the skies all along the lands bordering the Mississippi. Jacques Loeuille, -by the diversity of points of view (interventions of specialists, testimonies of the descendants of native Amerindian peoples, voice-over of the fictitious companion), by the choice of sources and types of images retained (photographs and maps of the past , first sound and visual recordings of bird calls, views of preserved landscapes, zoos or artificial reserves of today, overall plans of today’s industrialized and polluting areas…,-makes the cry of the a parrot with its wings clipped to prevent its escape from a park designed and financed by oil industrialists and other fuel oilers from Louisiana and elsewhere, always quick to polish a new ecological face through their ‘greenwahing’ operations.
Still present in certain dominant representations, the founding myth of the American nation, according to which this wild nature, Garden of Eden of incredible beauty, would have been granted, like a gift from heaven, to newcomers to settle there and make the earth fruitful-, is revealed here in a sinister reversal. The progressive extinction of multiple and splendid species of birds, immortalized in Audubon’s painting, and the programmed displacement of the poorest populations on the unhealthy banks of the Mississippi (in particular of the Amerindians with an ancestral culture symbolically linked to nature and birds) are associated by subterranean and relevant correspondences.
Even today the name of Jean-Jacques Audubon (who renamed himself John-James Audubon when Napoleon sold French Louisiana in 1802), declared ‘pioneer of American ecology’, remains popular to the point that n New York a taxi driver can drive his passenger in front of the former residence whose exterior walls (and some others in the city) reveal a magnificent fresco decorated with giant paintings of birds in the manner of the ornithologist.
It prevents. Jacques Loeuille shakes up totems and taboos without firing a shot in this documentary essay of infinite grace. The sensitive seduction of “Birds of America, crossed by the darkly lyrical musical score, composed and interpreted by Nigji Sanges, is combined with the intelligence of the subject. A rare work that invites us to rethink the history of the United States and political ecology.
“Birds of America”, film by Jacques Loeuille – release May 25, 2022