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Lowder's La Source de la Loire

Connor Murphy •    04.06.2024


Sometimes, a film is a statement. Most narrative films aspire to be statements of some kind or another, as do many non-narrative films. Other times, a film is a document, or even an object. These films might seek to communicate a feeling rather than an idea, or perhaps they don’t seek to communicate much at all. Instead, they may merely aim to present: to say, I went to this place, I saw and heard these things, and now this experience is mine to share. It may consist of no more than envisioning a task, or a journey, and completing it accordingly—a simple movement from one state to another. Such is the case with French-Peruvian filmmaker Rose Lowder’s wonderful La source de la Loire (2021), which sees the filmmaker trace the first few kilometers of France’s longest wild river with remarkable grace. Aside from an implicit proposal to appreciate the beauty of nature around us, there is no statement to be found in Lowder’s film. There is, however, a rapturous relaying of experience—a document of one’s descent from Ardèche’s Mont Gerbier de Jonc, edited such that each successive image effectively tumbles onto the next, montage flowing parallel to the fledgling river current.


For those familiar with Lowder’s best-known work, La Source de la Loire offers a curious change in form: gone is her trademark flickering of interwoven frames, now replaced by straightforward montage and an ostensibly objective lens. Nevertheless, the focus on landscape remains the same, as does her propensity for affect, achieving hypnosis through measured alternation between various arrays of images organized by three central components: light, color, and shape. With this change, Lowder moves away from what is effectively a structuralist approach to cinema and closer to something lyrical, allowing room for reverence beneath the image—a certain weight held within. Along these lines, the film has more in common with Lowder’s earlier experiments in figure and abstraction, as in Roulement, rouerie, aubage (1978) and Couleurs mécaniques (1979), which see Lowder document the repetitive motion of a waterwheel and a merry-go-round, respectively. In those films, affect is derived from a gradual pull into the image, where the viewer is lulled by the repeating movement of the wheels and therefore primed to register each minute deviation all the more. Moreover, this lulling is aided by the extent to which Lowder abstracts her subjects: in Roulement, for instance, it is not until the final of three segments, at which point color is introduced and the camera is slightly zoomed out, that one may finally discern what it even is we’ve been looking at; and then in Couleurs, while the subject is indeed more readily legible, the abundance of material constantly entering and exiting the frame allows for greater diversity in the abstractions to be made from them.


That being said, the abstraction seen in Source de la Loire is never confounding altogether, in part because like those two films, it is ultimately a study of a single thing, announced in the film’s opening moments. Lowder begins the film with four establishing shots split up by black leader: first, the mountain itself, which appears as a blue-gray boulder jutting out from the treeline; next, a sign on the side of the road pointing towards the source of the Loire; then, a clearing with a desire path leading down into the woods, down towards the source; and finally, a ramshackle placard placed over a hole in the ground which, from the voice of the river, reads “Ici commence ma course vers l’ocean.” And so the film proper, without any leader distancing one shot from the next, begins. The montage is consistent, clear. For the first half of the film, Lowder paces each shot to be more or less two seconds long—the length of a deep exhale or so.


While the structure is far less rigid than something like the Bouquets series, Lowder nonetheless can’t help but make her pictures rhyme. As mentioned earlier, the compositions in the film’s first ten minutes are basically organized into blocks comprising between seven to twelve images each, all linked by a similar color palette, a similar quality of light, or a similar balance of elements in the frame (provided chiefly by jagged blades of grass and shoots of other vegetation cutting across the image). They speak to one another—one image calls back to the image before it just as another calls forth to what will follow. Moreover, along with the three visual components by which Lowder organizes these shots, she additionally moves between three fundamental subjects: there is the river itself, bare and uncovered; there is the river shrouded by vegetation, hidden within the frame; and there is the landscape surrounding the river, which consists of meadows filled with flowers. It is in the movement between these subjects that Lowder is able to once again weave her images together, continuously zooming in and out on the river over time, reframing it, becoming swept up in its abstracted constituent parts before taking a moment to step back and place it in the world.

Vacillating between these subjects and between the sorts of compositions they give way to allows Lowder’s film to embody its subject, where each image flows into the next before it is whisked away, pulled down by the current. This becomes clearest at the film’s halfway point, where the time between images decreases alongside their apparent relation to one another. Which is to say, the images no longer flow directly into one another. Rather, they topple and collide as though propelled by gravity, with every diversion from the course (e.g., a sudden shot of a flower which holds for just a few seconds too long) becoming imbued with great power. These images serve as a reprieve of sorts, a sweet breath of air before the force of the current plunges us down once more.


On a similar note, the images that Lowder chooses to linger on become all the more loaded because she’s otherwise so conservative with the space she lets them occupy. Lowder is anything but precious about her images, regardless of how artfully composed they may be. She continuously finds the sublime in the play of light on the surface of the Loire, returning to images where the current doubles over as it glides above the rockbed and makes a lattice of light, or where ripples in the water are charged with such furious energy that the light bouncing off of them appears etched onto the film itself. Among the many incredible images which populate La source de la Loire, the one I find myself most drawn to depicts the stream fanning out as it passes over a change in depth on the surface beneath, the resultant striations in the water then resembling a translucent curtain held over shimmering stone. The shot is just one of many ecstatic visions held in Lowder’s journey down the Loire, and yet it only lasts for a moment or two. After all, something just as beautiful is bound to meet us downstream.


And so it does, but not as an image. In a remarkable move, Lowder cuts her river short and the image along with it. We are left with a black screen, and finally, sound: after some fourteen odd minutes filled only with the mechanical whir of the film projector, Lowder conjures a darkness and fills it with birdsong and insect chatter and wind—the voice of the Loire.

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