SCARLET: Once Upon A Dream

Italian filmmaker Pietro Marcello’s follow-up to his acclaimed epic Martin Eden, Scarlet is a gorgeously mounted French-language production that tells the tale of a young woman (played by radiant newcomer Juliette Jouan) who believes that one day, scarlet sails will spirit her away from the painfully provincial village she calls home. Loosely adapted from Alexander Grin’s beloved romantic fable Scarlet Sails, the film is a welcome throwback to an earlier cinematic era, one in which Jacques Demy’s swoon-worthy musical romances set the standard for movie magic. And while Scarlet doesn’t quite reach the dizzying heights of Demy — and really, what could? — it nonetheless casts a spell of its own that is sure to enchant audiences.

With a Smile and a Song

Raphaël (Raphaël Thierry), a gifted woodworker whose hardened, craggy appearance belies an inner gentleness, returns from the front after World War I to discover that his wife Marie has passed away, leaving behind a baby daughter in the care of an unconventional local woman named Adeline (Noémie Lvovsky, whose wonderful earthiness is reminiscent of the great Anna Magnani). Raphaël moves in with Adeline and the baby, called Juliette, on the farm that they share with the village blacksmith and his family. Yet when he discovers that a local man bears the responsibility for Marie’s untimely death, the fallout from an impulsive moment of vengeance ensures Raphaël and Juliette will be shunned as long as they remain in the village.

SCARLET: Once Upon A Dream
source: Kino Lorber

Yet remain they do, with Raphaël making a living by traveling to the city to sell meticulously crafted wooden toys, including intricately carved boats with colorful sails that are straight out of a child’s wildest daydreams. As Juliette grows into a lovely young woman (eventually taking the form of Jouan) with a great talent for music, the locals continue to mock her and her family’s eccentricities while simultaneously lusting after her sun-kissed beauty. “No one in the village believes in magic anymore. No one sings anymore, except you,” a witch tells Juliette, encouraging her to stay true to herself despite incessant hardships…and she does, all the while clinging to the witch’s prophecy that someday scarlet sails will arrive to take her away from it all.

A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes

If you grew up on Disney’s animated princess movies, as I did, it’s impossible to not see reflections of Beauty and the Beast’s Belle in Scarlet’s Juliette, right down to the talented, ostracized father that she adores with all her heart. So it’s no surprise that eventually, as in all good fairy tales, a dashing Prince Charming type arrives in the form of a magician and pilot named Jean (Louis Garrel, a fitting heir to Martin Eden’s Luca Marinelli as far as romantic leads with remarkable noses are concerned). It’s love at first sight, but that doesn’t mean that all of Juliette’s problems have vanished, or that additional tragedy isn’t lurking in the shadows.

SCARLET: Once Upon A Dream
source: Kino Lorber

Scarlet combines colorized archival footage with sublime location cinematography by Marco Graziaplena to portray an old-fashioned world on the cusp of modernity and all of the conflict that transition entails. (The film spans the years 1919 to 1939, from the end of one world-shattering war to the dawn of another.) Every frame is stunning; the scenes in the woods near Juliette’s home are suffused with an ethereal glow that makes the already attractive cast appear almost otherworldly. The musical score by prolific Academy Award-winning composer Gabriel Yared (The English Patient), which includes several songs sung by Jouan in a voice as clear and resonant as a wind chime, oozes old-fashioned romanticism; indeed, the scene in which Jean hears her voice coming from the woods while he swims in a lake, and seeks the source of such a sweet sound, could have been pulled from another old Disney movie—this time, Sleeping Beauty.

Yet Juliette has far more depth, complexity, and agency than your average cartoon princess, which we watch her acquire as she ages from infant to adult over the course of Scarlet. It’s impossible not to adore her, in large part due to Jouan, who lights up the screen with her spirited performance in the latter half of the film. Like the magnificent carvings Raphaël summons almost magically from blocks of wood, so Juliette emerges from the raw, untouched stuff of childhood into a fully-fledged person whose character has been greatly influenced by her father’s various life choices, for better or for worse. And while Raphaël might view a boat’s figurehead in the likeness of his beloved Marie as his ultimate masterpiece, it is clear that his crowning achievement is actually his daughter. Who can say that isn’t a life well lived, despite the various hardships and cruelties they have both endured?


A timeless coming-of-age tale told beautifully by Marcello and his collaborators, Scarlet is a cinematic treat for the eyes, the ears, and the heart.

Scarlet opens at Film at Lincoln Center and IFC Center in New York on June 9, 2023, before expanding to other markets later this summer.

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