Set in three different countries and filmed in three different languages, the lives of three completely different people are all intertwined by tragedy in Pascal Payant’s homage to European Cinema, April Skies.
Payant’s April Skies takes a lot from the French New Wave era but also celebrates the work of Ingmar Bergman and other European masters by creating a hugely entertaining mixture of styles. Opening with a lovely montage of drone footage, traveling, and tracking shots, we glide past Icelandic mountain tops, fly across Swedish scrubland, and wander through Parisian streets, buildings, and bedrooms. We stop in front of the headstrong Zoe, played with confidence by Pauline Nyrls, as she breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to us. Zoe will be one of our narrators; she tells us she has cystic fibrosis and has been given two years to live. Hit with this dramatic first beat the first story in a trilogy begins.
Minutes later, we are transported to Stockholm in Sweden where, after the death of her manager, a pop star named Liv lies depressed in bed. In stark contrast to Nyrls as Zoe, Liv is played with a resigned sense of anguish by the elegant Sara Hagnö. Where Zoe is confident and carefree, Liv, despite her career, is more insular and introverted. They both want to push away loved ones and friends but do so in separate ways; Zoe remains calm and polite, while Liv tells it as it is. Liv’s personal assistant Vera (an astonishingly good Linnea Pihl) takes the brunt of Liv’s pain and there is an early cheer when Vera finally snaps and gives the ungrateful Liv something back.
Our third story takes place in Reykjavik, Iceland where Svandis Dora Einarsdottir plays Lara, a mum-to-be, also mourning a loss. All three main actors give powerfully different performances alluding to grief. The supporting cast, including the aforementioned Pihl, along with Sophie Mousel and Gudmundur Thorvaldsson, manage to invoke strong emotions and feelings that bring out the best in each other.
Each of the stories stands out for different reasons The Paris sequences are far more experimental with form and style with director Payant favouring what feels like more portable equipment. There is a run-and-gun style to the shooting of scenes in Paris with Payant acting as his own cinematographer capturing the essence of the New Wave. The second story is pure Bergman, overtly hinted at with the name of the main protagonist being ‘Liv’ and taking place in Stockholm. This Swedish section takes the form of a chamber piece with its large apartment acting like a stage for two actors to command and shine on. Payant photographs his characters here using two-shots and close-ups, which allows us to see and feel every snarl, grimace, and sneer of each character’s contempt. These moments are typified by the slow pace, laconic dialogue, and extensive use of symbolism that slowly reveals their feelings. Meanwhile, the Icelandic portion of the piece focuses on existentialism taking the form of philosophical questions about the meaning, purpose, and value of human existence. A sense of dread, disorientation, confusion, and anxiety permeates these sections with an added supernatural element.
Throughout the 90-minute run time we see fragmented, discontinuous editing, and also long takes that allow the cast to explore a scene. The combination of realism, subjectivity, and commentary allows April Skies to show us ambiguous characters, motives, and even endings that are not so clear-cut. The main takeaway from all of this is, if you can create your own piece of art by successfully emulating the genius of Truffaut, Bergman, and Fellini, then Pascal Payant is well on his way to becoming the next world-renowned European film auteur because April Skies is a magnificent piece of work.