Venice Film Fest 2022 Review: A Gardener Confronts Obstacles to Growth in “Beating Sun”

“Beating Sun” starts with such a simple image that becomes increasingly complicated as Philippe Petit’s captivating character study, observing a piece of shrubbery that has somehow escaped between the cracks of the asphalt in a vacant lot in the city. If it were up to Max (Swann Arlaud), there would be an entire garden on the property as the landscape artist spends his days envisioning a peaceful park in the area surrounded by cars and derelict buildings, a refuge for the working class neighborhood unused to notions of tranquility in a public space. His ideas about urban renewal are apt to wow others, exciting others as his enthusiasm shines through when he talks about the color range of the vegetation he’d plan to install, but they generally are seen as impractical by the powers that be, told after entering a contest that while his idea for an airy town square is innovative, more traditional enclosed designs are what’s desired.

This frustration surely isn’t limited to Max’s field of work, as Petit is sure to include a scene where after the gardener picks his up his wife at the airport, she complains about her own potential clients after getting back from a gig, “They want to speed the world up instead of slow it down,” justifiably aggrieved in a culture where productivity has overtaken human concerns. However, “Beating Sun” evolves into a rare consideration of the dangers of labor as a passion, witnessing how a dream project opens Max up to various vulnerabilities in his personal and professional lives and even if he can find financing for the project, he’ll always carry the cost with him. There are warning signs immediately after he loses the contest, with his partner Gaspard deciding against continuing on and a dead body is found on the plot of land, and he probably should be more wary of Paul, the architect on the voting committee who confides where his pitch went awry, but he liked what he heard enough to offer Max a job on a project of his own, a cliffside bar that could use some expert outdoor attention.

It becomes one of many gigs that Max juggles while nursing his real dream of this park, which dominates his thoughts to the point of not only actively scheming to bring it up to others in positions of authority but inspires work he does on those projects. Arlaud induces plenty of nail biting anxiety as Max, subtly expressing how he holds onto an idea without being able to imagine it any differently as he talks to various decision makers and awkwardly navigates when to approach people he thinks has power and when not to. While he can’t exactly see where to compromise, Petit has a strong eye for where reality and Max’s idealism could be reconciled if only either side could give an inch and what he does share in common with his lead is an ability to take a holistic view, albeit one that supersedes Max’s altruistic ideas for building a community to envision all the obstacles that that stand in Max’s way, including his own obstinance, and perhaps no greenery will get planted by the end of “Beating Sun,” but certainly a consciousness is.

“Beating Sun” will screen again at the Critics Week section of the Venice Film Fest on September 4th at the Sala Corinto at 7:30 pm.