Vincent Cardona’s gorgeous coming-of-age film The Magnetic Ones looks back to the exuberant creativity of the post-punk era.
Are you already a cultural pessimist if you long for the cellar culture of the early 80s? Postpunk, garage bands, fanzine and poster printers? Free radio, video and 16mm groups, mail art, art happenings and parties that were really about the music you were listening to? Creativity was not an issue, but omnipresent. The urge to express yourself is a cheap commodity like beer. Nothing against the digital youth culture today – but where there used to be anarchy, there is now professionalism.
French filmmaker Vincent Maël Cardona was just born in the period that brings his debut film The Magnetic to life. So the nostalgia of someone who was there doesn’t cloud the view here. Rather, it’s the other way around: his curiosity about analogue wonders is the joyful antithesis to a heartbreaking coming-of-age story that might otherwise get lost in melancholy.
In an attic radio studio we meet teenager Jerome at the microphone. Joseph Olivennes, son of Kristin Scott Thomas, plays him with the grace of the subtle couch potato. The narration we hear is addressed to his brother, his partner in the underground project they call Radio Warsaw.
They could hardly be more different, the sensitive sound inventor who glues audio cassettes into endless loops and noises into soundscapes. And the short-tempered Philippe, played by Thimotée Robart, a guy like Sean Penn. His relaxed presence at the microphone seems to mean as little to him as his girlfriend. On the other hand, Jerome thinks of little else than Marianne.
Noisy message of love
When he is drafted into military service and sent to Berlin for a year, they exchange mixtapes. Marianne recorded songs by Nina Hagen and other Berlin bands for him and breathed something on the tape at the end: “I kiss you on the neck, we can do that.”
Just as precisely as the filmmaker first drew the village environment of the young people in Brittany, he now paints pre-reunification Berlin with seductive gray shadows. As a matter of course, his camera with Jerome dives into a party in the East, where the so-called magnetic tape underground is currently experiencing its heyday. Otherwise, Joy Division, Gang of Four or Iggy Popp’s “The Passenger” determine the soundtrack. In order to get through to his Marianne, he hijacks the radio show on the British army station BFBS. To the astonishment of the friendly presenter, a veteran of the rock’n’roll era, he builds a sound sculpture out of tape loops, cassettes and manipulated turntables in seconds. Marianne, who follows this transmission on noisy long wave, can find her voice in it.
The mutual infatuation can hardly hope for fulfillment – especially since Jerome’s love for the brother who is unfit for life would stand in the way. On a home vacation, irreconcilable feelings mix into a spooky roller coaster ride.
Montage is not only everything for the early DJ culture and experimental tape scene celebrated here: it is also the essence of cinema, and this is where the real mastery of Vincent Cardona and his editor Flora Volpelière lies: in their lyrical narrative style they have the Tape collages taken as a model. Everything is in flux – and yet has its place. The story to the brother is the only slightly conventional element, but that never seems overpowered, to stay with the metaphor. The debut director carefully layers feeling on feeling like in an audiovisual sculpture – with a remarkable certainty.
Almost all coming-of-age movies that mean something are about those moments of growing up when happiness and loss coincide. You experience something that you have never experienced before – the surprising love of another person, for example – and yet you know that everything around it will be doomed when you finish school.
Music plays a decisive role in this – songs are the best orientation in this phase of life. Except for the cinema, of course, but that rarely has the right film on hand when you need it. What could you learn from him as a teenager. But it works both ways: as an outlook into a hopefully self-determined adult world. And for the older ones as a throwback to a damn creative time.
The Magnetic . F 2021. Directed by Vincent Maël Cardona. 98 mins