Director Chloé Mazlo’s feature debut, Skies of Lebanon, is an indefinable confection: outwardly quirky, charming, and romantic, yet at its centre sits a hard nut.
It is 1950, and newly-qualified nanny Alice, wants to travel far from her stultifying home in Switzerland. She takes a job in Lebanon, and soon meets the dashing rocket scientist Joseph with whom she settles down, and starts a family. Life is good for the Kamars in their home in Beirut, until 1975 when the infamous civil war breaks out. The hostilities put pressure on the family, and on the romance at the heart of this narrative.
Mazlo has chosen to make his film using theatrical techniques and stop-motion animation. Most of the background shots of Beirut are performed in front of stage-backdrops, Alice’s early life in Switzerland is entirely animated, the story of the war itself is told through theatrical and choreographed scenes, and the entire production design is deliberately given a slight air of unreality. This is all fascinating to the eye, and charming. Although it doesn’t always work, it certainly serves to maintain interest, and is a clever way to tell this story by leaning-into, rather than battling, a tight budget.
Italian actor Alba Rohrwacher is delightful as Alice. She shares a gentle on-screen chemistry with Wajdi Mouawad as Joseph. This is fundamentally a love story, and these two actors clearly revel in the intelligent and humane script by Mazlo herself, and Yacine Badday. The character of Alice was based on Mazlo’s own grandmother, and the script draws on the stories her family handed down about the Civil War. This is reflected in the sense of intimacy that pervades the entire film.
Skies of Lebanon is whimsical, moving, and truly romantic. It is also a love-song to Lebanon herself, and particularly to Beirut, that most beautiful city torn apart by war. Mazlo is a director clearly unafraid to go to dark places with an unusual cache of filmic weapons. If this is her first feature, one can only wait in anticipation for her next project.