There’s nothing like the perspective of a cultural outsider to make you see things differently. When Italian director Sergio Leone began making his spaghetti westerns, he breathed new life into a genre that many felt had grown stale. Savage State, made by French director David Perrault, may not be the next The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly or Once Upon a Time in the West, but it is refreshing in that it doesn’t look or feel like your traditional western. It’s something new.
Savage State revolves around a family of wealthy French immigrants in 1860s Missouri who, upon the escalation of tensions during the American Civil War, make the decision to return to Paris and relative safety. But their journey home will not be without its own perils. They will have to travel through the rugged frontier, one that is full of dangers and will require the three young daughters of the family to learn how to defend themselves. They’re led by a classically mercurial figure, Victor (Kevin Janssens), who has his own motivations for providing protection for the vulnerable family, but plays them close to his chest.
It’s clear almost immediately that cinema is starved for westerns with a female perspective, and Savage State provides in abundance. The three sisters, Esther (Alice Isaaz), Justine (Deborah Francois), and Abigaelle (Maryne Bertieaux) are unusually three-dimensional and their dynamics with one another are layered and compelling. Their transition from well-heeled society girls to empowered individuals forced to take their protection into their own hands is abrupt, but not jarring. If anything, it’s satisfying to see them at last given the opportunity to show what they’re capable of.
Esther is especially fascinating, the enigmatic youngest daughter of the family. At times almost otherworldly, she possesses a restless, individualistic streak and seems the least bothered by being asked to abandon her privileged, untroubled life in St. Louis. If anything, she’s been longing for a bit of adventure. Her relationship with the family’s Black servant Layla (Armelle Abibou) is bizarrely compelling, although the depiction of Layla as some sort of voodoo priestess and temptress is the film’s largest misstep. It leans into stereotypical depictions of Black women, even though the character of Layla isn’t necessarily shown in a negative light. Their bond and the powers they lay claim to give Savage State a off-kilter third act with a conclusion that, to be honest, feels tonally off from the rest of the film.
But what defines Savage State more than anything else is how well it reimagines traditional western spaces. Stripped of the most recognizable iconography of the genre, it starts fresh, giving the landscape a unique visual style that showcases both its beauty and its danger. Perrault creates an environment that feels as alien and threatening to us as it does to our family of travelers, but there are moments when the fog rolls in and catches the light in a certain way that takes your breath away. And as much as it establishes a new visual language for westerns, it also broadens the scope of what types of stories can be told within the genre. Yes, there are shootings and strapping, amoral loners with mysterious pasts. But there are also two young women sitting on a ridge having a quiet conversation about their shared childhood. A western where femininity is not an element that “tames” the wilderness, like we see repeatedly used as a motif within the genre, but rather a force of nature that meets the lawlessness and barbarism of the frontier on its own terms.
With captivating performances, powerful and dynamic imagery, and a compelling twist on the traditional western, Perrault has certainly made a statement. He may not have entirely reinvented the genre, but his keen eye and willingness to highlight female experiences and narratives has provided a welcome new perspective, further building out a growing collection of westerns with a focus on women.