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Review: Garage, Engines and Men


- Claire Simon revisits her childhood haunts and sets up shop in a local garage in order to lovingly reveal the town’s human inner workings

Review: Garage, Engines and Men

A small town perched atop a rocky spur, surrounded by hills strewn with olive, pine and oak trees. In Claviers, "whatever you do, you need a car, so the garage is the place where everyone goes". This is the microcosm chosen this time round by Claire Simon, who is delivering documentaries at a metronomic rate (and who will soon be offering up a fiction film – read our article), deploying a highly restrained, immersive and human-focused style whereby small touches come to form smoothly painted social portraits which cross the line between realism and impressionism.

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Unveiled in the 43rd Cinéma du Réel Festival’s French competition, Garage, Engines and Men also chimes with the personal life and work of the director, given that she grew up in the area and even shot 800 kilomètres de différence (2001) - a work which retraces her own daughter’s teenage relationship with the local baker’s son - in Claviers. As such, it’s a film which speaks to the viewer on various levels: it’s mechanical, because at Chris’ Auto/Moto, there’s an endless procession of clients needing repairs, but it’s also symbolic, because we spend a lot of time chatting with well-known customers, and listening in on conversations between the boss (Christophe) and his apprentice (Romaric).

"Idler pinions", tyres, pulleys, starter motors, crankshafts, camshafts, shock absorbers, cups, triangles, 13mm or 16mm sockets, brake pads, jammed seatbelts or windows, suspension, rods, etc… You don’t need to be familiar with the many pieces of the metallic puzzle that is a car or a motorbike in order to dive headlong into the day-to-day environment of a garage, whose protagonists are snowed under with a variety of problems needing to be resolved amidst a tangle of tools and a deafening soundscape, which sees them wriggling under machines or shoving their arms into the midst of gear mechanisms. It’s all far from easy ("you get one nightmare over with and then another comes along"): there’s frustration, swearing, desperation almost, but they always end up finding a solution by persevering and adapting. Outside, it’s sunny and calm, but inside Chris’ Auto/Moto, there’s continual turmoil for electrifying and likeable Christophe, who must manage an endless stream of clients-friends while providing on-the-job training for his kind, 17-year-old, right-hand man.

A former mayor discussing the past and present state of local politics, a hospital orderly who can only pay her bill in four instalments, biker buddies passing by between drinks and mountain walks with their girlfriends, DIY enthusiasts and philistines, vehicles which have collided with wild pigs or started shuddering on the motorway, young people and old folk, a pregnant woman, a female fan of Romaric’s, Christophe’s wife and son… A stream of life in all its diversity (albeit mostly masculine) comes and goes from the garage, offering up snatches of modern-day existence which Claire Simon’s camera (and editing) captures at maximum proximity. The portrait of a duo, a town and a society, Garage, Engines and Men successfully positions itself at the beating heart of the region and invites the viewer to sit alongside it, at this observation post which turns out to be an integral part of a far wider whole than the four walls of a garage. It’s a “mission accomplished” for the filmmaker who puts a cinematic stamp on her childhood haunts – a stamp that’s highly modern but also tinged with memory-based testimony. Just like the client who comes to change a spare tyre, she can legitimately state: "I can leave with my head held high and say see you soon? It’s alright if I come a cropper now (laughter)".

Garage, Engines and Men is produced by Rebecca Houzel on behalf of Petit à Petit Production.

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(Translated from French)

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