The term “visually arresting” gets thrown around a lot, but I can’t think of any other way to describe Robert J. Flaherty’s Louisiana Story, which was shot by cinematographer Richard Leacock.
I rented Louisiana Story and wasn’t expecting to watch all of it when I first put on the DVD. But from the very first shot of the film, I was unable to move, and watched the film from beginning to end.
I think a lot of people have the sense that black and white is just a low-budget necessity, and that viewers would be able to go even deeper into the world of a film if only it were in beautiful, lifelike color. But Louisiana Story is beautiful precisely because it is gorgeously unreal.
The entire film looks like a photograph by Ansel Adams come to life. Louisiana Story is filmed like a documentary — with all nonprofessional actors — and it’s a shimmering, luminescent, and uncanny view of reality.
It follows a Cajun boy named Alexander Napolean Ulysses Latour (Joseph Boudreaux), who is about 13 years old and spend his days in the idyll of the swamp, rowing his canoe, fishing, shooting, and imagining he sees werewolves behind the trees and mermaids below the water. His father is played by Lionel Le Blanc and his mother is played by Mrs. E. Bienvenu.
Early in Louisiana Story, the quiet of the swamp is rocked by an explosion from a wildcat oil well. The film follows the boy as he rows around the oil derrick, makes friends with the men who work on it, and whiles away his days with his pet raccoon, occasionally running afoul of alligators.
Robert J. Flaherty is best known as the documentary film pioneer who made Nanook of the North (1922) and Man of Aran (1934).
Louisiana Story was Flaherty’s last film. It was commissioned by the Standard Oil Company, which is ironic. The oil workers are all friendly with the young protagonist, and the way Flaherty and Leacock shoot the oil rig is just as beautiful in its own way as the way they shoot the boy’s languorous days in the swamp. But with the constant contrasting between nature and the disruption of nature that the oil well represents, Louisiana Story doesn’t ever feel like a promotion for the petroleum industry.
Robert J. Flaherty and his wife Frances H. Flaherty were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Story for Louisiana Story.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the brilliant score for the film by American composer Virgil Thomson. In 1949, Thomson won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his score for Louisiana Story. His score was inspired by a field tape of Cajun musicians and was performed by the Philadelphia Symphony under the direction of Eugene Ormandy. It’s unlike any other film score I’ve heard from the 1940s and is the perfect accompaniment to the poetic visuals.