When a fabulous storyteller like Steven Spielberg draws on his own memory to recount his youth and explain how cinema entered his life, the result is bound to be conclusive. The Fabelmans (The Fabelmans in the French version) is both an ode to 7e art and a love letter that the filmmaker sends to his parents. It’s very touching.
The story begins in 1952, at a time when the Fabelman family resided in a suburb of New Jersey. So very young, Sam accompanies his parents (Michelle Williams and Paul Dano) for the first time to the cinema, in one of these huge single-screen rooms, where we present that day The Greatest Show on Earth, penultimate film by veteran Cecil B. DeMille. The experience will prove to be as decisive as it is traumatic. The young boy will not cease, at the suggestion of his mother, to recreate with his small 8 mm camera the train accident he saw on the big screen in order to evacuate the nightmarish aspect.
Steven Spielberg, who wrote the screenplay with playwright Tony Kushner, then tells how his vocation is intrinsically linked to his family and personal history. Born of an engineer father focused on the new technologies of his time, and a musician and artist mother who gave up her career as a pianist to raise her family, the alter ego of the filmmaker, encouraged by his parents, begins very early to shoot small home movies by creating his own stagings. Certain characteristic features of the feature films that he will later offer to the world are already there.
Reached adolescence, the exercise of this art becomes more serious for Sam (excellent Gabriel LaBelle), just as much as life. When the family leaves the suburbs of Phoenix, where Burt, his father, had found a job, to settle in a very white town in northern California, where his father’s new job is even more interesting, Sam undergoes the wrath of anti-Semitic bullies in college. That he will face – what else – with the weapons of cinema.
The value of images
An important turning point will also be initiated thanks to a revelation worthy of the blow-up of Antonioni. Replaying footage from a day of outdoor fun with his family, including Burt’s lifelong best friend “Uncle” Bennie (Seth Rogen), Sam discovers a situation which had completely eluded him until then.
Through his own journey, Steven Spielberg thus offers us, without any didacticism, a remarkable lesson in cinema.
Through this unexpected drama, Sam indeed learns the value of images, the power they can contain, and the use to which they are put. The young man will also be able to experience it when he is commissioned to make the end-of-year film in college, another very strong moment.
The prolific filmmaker, to whom we owe some of the most influential feature films of the past five decades, from Duel at West Side Story (version 2021) via Raiders of the Lost Ark, AND., Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and so many others, has also done well to dwell only on his youth, that is to say the era preceding his arrival in professional cinema. This aspect is however evoked in a delicious scene, where David Lynch has the opportunity to assert himself by slipping into the skin of one of the greatest filmmakers in history.
Once again, Steven Spielberg offers us a very rich, very moving film (mention to Michelle Williams, formidable in the role of the mother), full of winks, from which transpires in each shot an unwavering love of cinema. And unalterable.
The Fabelmans (V.F.: The Fabelmans)
Starring Michelle Williams, Gabriel LaBelle, Paul Dano