He was an astrophysicist who dreamed of sending the first Lebanese man into space. She was a Swiss artist who moved to Beirut to work as a nanny. For this seemingly unusual pair, it was love at first sight, but even the most idyllic romance struggles to withstand the hardships of war.
Director and cowriter Chloé Mazlo (along with cowriter Yacine Badday) draws on her grandmother’s memories of living through the Lebanese Civil War to weave a story of the conflict from a personal perspective in her feature film debut, “Skies of Lebanon.” Mazlo also utilizes her background in directing animation to great effect, as is evident almost from the film’s beginning. The opening scenes of the movie are whimsical and romantic, almost like a fairy tale, as the protagonist Alice (Alba Rohrwacher) recounts her life leading up to that point. Stop motion animation is used to detail her upbringing in 1950s Switzerland, picturesque but, assumedly, dull; Alice yearns to leave, and after receiving a job offer in Beirut, she takes it. The scene then transitions to live action as Alice disembarks in the city, but even then, Mazlo gives her surroundings an arty touch; the grainy film and static backgrounds look like something out of a vintage travelogue, or a moving postcard.
The romantic environment leads to actual romance after Alice meets Joseph (Wajdi Mouawad) in a café, and they share a typical rom-com meet-cute. Sitting near each other, they steal glances but never actually lock eyes; on every encounter, Joseph sits a little closer to her, until he finally initiates a conversation by asking her to borrow the sugar at her table. The montage that follows combines dreamy backdrops and animation to portray Alice and Joseph’s life together. They share their dreams. They get married. They have a child, a daughter (this life event cleverly shown via Alice and Joseph alternately snatching at passing storks until they catch one). They have a lovely home, all bright yellows and blues, and as the years go by and they all grow older, their house is populated by family and friends. No dialogue is required to convey their evident bliss and the fullness of their lives as they move into the 1970s. So it’s all the more jarring when, in the middle of a birthday party, Alice hears a report on the radio about an attack in the city that resulted in the deaths of 30 civilians, and the film cuts to a shot of bodies strewn about the street.
Appropriately, as the film ventures deeper into the Lebanese Civil War, the more whimsical touches become more scarce, and reality sets in. Alice and Joseph’s family and friends, including their young adult daughter Mona (Isabelle Zighondi) and her boyfriend Selim (Ziad Jallad), find themselves caught on different sides of the conflict. And Joseph’s dedication to his career versus Alice’s concern for their wellbeing threatens their relationship. “Skies of Lebanon” doesn’t dive into the politics or specifics of the war, which may leave those unfamiliar with the history a little confused, but the ramifications of war on everyday life are universal, and deeply felt through the performances. Both Rohrwacher and Mouawad deftly convey the feeling of falling in love—hesitancy followed by excitement—and the resentment, fear, and sadness that the war plunges them in to. Mazlo continues to make solid creative choices in the film’s final act that convey the ever-widening gulf between the couple. In a scene where they are both present in the same room, they are separated in the frame by a houseplant; sharing a space, but not really together. In another scene where the building tension finally explodes into a big fight, we don’t actually hear them exchanging words—we see them, as Alice’s melancholy voiceover explains what is occurring, and that makes it even more devastating. “Under other circumstances, I wouldn’t have said this.” “I never would have thought you capable of telling me that.” However inevitable the confrontation was, it’s a heart-breaking comedown and a harsh dose of reality for a story that began with happily ever after.
While “Skies of Lebanon” doesn’t exactly conclude happily, it does end somewhat hopefully, with the promise that someday the city and home they loved so much will be hospitable to lovers and dreamers once again. “Skies of Lebanon” was filmed in France, but it is as much a love letter to Beirut as anything else. It effectively and movingly portrays how war can tear people and places apart, but the feelings it leaves us with are those of resilience and hope—and that love can, indeed, overcome change and strife.
“Skies of Lebanon” opens at the IFC Center in NYC on July 22, with a nationwide rollout to follow. Runtime: 92 minutes. Not rated.
Media review screener courtesy Dekanalog.