A young, polo-necked guy is standing in front of the camera with a rocket launcher shrugged high on his shoulders, sending missile after missile crashing into a wind turbine as it spins its long arms around. As each blast hits, the explosive sprinkles out and fades away, an angry firework of frustration: Martin is upset, and he's taking it out on the first sustainable energy source he can find. Except "Martin" is an avatar from Grand Theft Auto V, who has now been turned into the main character of a short film about longing and loss.
Martin Pleure, directed by Jonathan Vinel, had its world premiere at one of Europe's biggest film festivals, the Berlinale, this week. The short film comprises 16 minutes of GTA V footage, with a voiceover from the melancholy Martin who's being ghosted by his three friends. Our freckled, sportswear-clad hero roams around the San Andreas landscape, shooting bazookas at cops off moving trains and smashing souped-up, trance-blasting convertibles into mountains, musing on friendship and loss and wondering where his friends could have gone. Somehow the juxtaposition of sensitive French ruminations never jars with the apparently meaningless aggression of the gameplay visuals.
Among the macho drug rings, drive-bys and brothels in the gameplay of GTA, this storyline takes a different approach, and director Jonathan Vinel wanted to play with this conflict: "My interest in this movie was not to make a gangster movie. In some ways it's the opposite of a gangster movie, because it's very romantic," he told me. "I like this opposition."
Similarly, Vinel also chose to represent some of the game's most beautiful corners: the sunset-shining sea and the empty rocky outback that feature less frequently in most players' experience of the game. It's as if Martin is looking for his friends in the most secluded places he can think of in the game's universe, and then burning the place down once he gets there with a destructive urge that comes from not being able to get what you want.
The film plays with the audience's understanding of the character—whose voice comes from an IRL person, but whose body is stuck in the digitally-rendered world of the video game. "It's like Martin wants to escape the game to find his friends, but he is locked in," says Vinel.
The director's decision to make the film was also borne out of a desire for escape—deep in the planning stages of shooting a feature film, Vinel was looking for a distraction. "I think I've been playing the other iterations of the game since I was a kid.t's a game that really influenced the aesthetic of my other movies." When he started playing GTA V, he found there was a module with the game that allowed players to film themselves in the game. In terms of production, it was the perfect diversion—with infinite material, the options were almost endless. "For example, if I wanted to make this film in real life, it's not possible—there's no money to destroy wind farms!"
It's not just practicality though: The escapism of video games is tempting on a more philosophical level. "I think the world is so strange, that I'd prefer to live in video games," Vinel said. He notes the dissonance between being able to beat up cops on GTA, while police brutality hits new lows in his native France, with four officers held over an alleged rape and violent attack on a young black man.
"Some of the youth think they can't change the world, but in video games you can," Vinel said. "I think video games allow these people to just live how they want to, and be happy."
The film ends with a determined Martin driving a motorboat into a pink-tinged horizon, Balearic blissed-out beats painting a sunny wash behind his voice as he restates his purpose. Perhaps he will be searching forever. Vinel sees this as a positive message for the film to end on: "It's not a pessimistic movie for me. It's cool if you have a mission." He said: "Maybe he will always be sad but he has an objective."