The Wellington Film Society’s program is back after an amazing run of Film Festival movies to keep everyone busy – and (for the most part) happy. Now we’re back to regular weekly Film Society offerings. And first up after the winter break is Baden Baden by Rachel Lang.
A coming-of-age comedy about a ditzy French twentysomething looking for meaning in her life sounds like nothing new – but first time director Rachel Lang’s Baden Badenis utterly distinctive. Ana (Salome Richard) is a chaotically disorganised driver on a movie shoot who ‘borrows’ one of the swanky hire cars and returns to her home town of Strasbourg where she flits between old flames and decides to renovate her grandma’s bathroom – despite knowing nothing about plumbing or tiling. The brilliant editing always leaving us guessing where this woman or the next shot will take us. The overall effect is beguiling yet slightly bonkers. It will drive some viewers up the wall, but fans will feel the rush of discovering a unique new director and, in Richard, a gawky yet captivating screen presence.
Rachel Lang’s debut feature opens with a five-minute shot filmed through the passenger window of a car, the camera trained on the increasingly panicked face of the young woman driving. She swears and takes a call. She is, we gradually realise, an assistant on a film, late delivering the high-profile star to set. Arriving, she is hauled out of the car and given one hell of a dressing-down by the production manager, and we wait, at a distance, until she returns snivelling to her driver’s seat. Framed by the thick black lines of the car window, she sheds a solitary tear, before jamming the vehicle into gear.
This distinctive opening sets the tone for an episodic drama that follows in the tradition of Eric Rohmer’s The Green Ray (1986), Mia Hansen-Love’s Goodbye First Love (2011) and Julie Lopes-Curval’s High Society (2014), tracing a young woman’s existential and romantic coming of age (which seems to happen a lot later these days) over the course of a single summer. When the film has wrapped, 26-year-old Ana (Salome Richard), whose peripatetic lifestyle has led her most recently to London, drives the productions flashy hire car all the way to her hometown of Strasbourg, where she pinballs around between various lovers and her grandmother’s rundown apartment with apparently very little idea of what she is doing or where she’ll go next. Craving something of substance, she sets about renovating the apartment’s tired bathroom, smashing tiles and heaving fixtures with the help of hapless DIY-store salesman Gregoire, whom she picks up during a shopping trip (such is Ana’s wont). As she pivots and turns, moving in every direction but going nowhere, we wait to see if and where she will land.
Baden Baden is the final film in a trilogy, the first two parts of which – Langs shorts For You I Will Fight (2011 winner of the Silver Leopard at Locamo) and White Turnips Make It Hard to Sleep (2011) – also starred Richard as Ana. Lang has said little about any autobiographical connection, but it’s intriguing that both Ana (in For You I Will Fight) and Lang have served as officers in the French army. Worth noting, too, that Lang grew up in Strasbourg, Alsace, an area that, having been at various points annexed by Germany and briefly declared a republic, has suffered its own share of identity crises. Here she makes surprising use of the city and its architecture, using a bleached palette with vivid splashes of primary colour. Cinematographer Fiona Braillon tends to shoot head-on or at right angles, carving the space into parallel and perpendicular lines. At one moment, Ana is captured before an endless stack of apartment balconies, at another in front of a grid of blue tiles lining an empty pool. Even a hulking DIY megastore offers moments of unusual beauty among a hothouse array of showerheads.
There’s something rather deadpan about this flattening out that puts one in mind of Aki Kaurismaki for example. And indeed, the film is frequently funny, in a dry, witty manner. Claude Gensac delivers some knockout one-liners as Ana’s curmudgeonly grandmother Odette, while Lazare Gousseau’s slapstick wrangling with a bathtub is worthy of Laurel and Hardy. There’s a hilarious drunken scene in a nearly empty karaoke bar. Yet the atmosphere is mostly languid, sultry, even at times fairytale-like. We catch brief glimpses of Ana and artist lover Boris strolling naked through a forest that are perhaps a fantasy. At the films climax, Ana travels down a winding road and arrives at Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut chapel, a kind of concrete gingerbread house. At these moments, time stutters, becomes dreamlike, Braillon’s camera slowing down and speeding up almost imperceptibly. The tonal shifts could have jarred, instead they feel elegant, organic, thanks in no small part to some clever editing by Sophie Vercruysse.
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