Berlinale 2016 Review: BADEN BADEN, A Promising Yet Frustrating Debut
Both main character Ana and the film about her show intense promise in a variety of different fields, yet are never quite able to coalesce and capitalize on them in a meaningful way. They say a good film has three great scenes and no bad ones, so by that standard Baden Baden clearly succeeds, but its overall flakiness makes it the friend that's always fun to be around even if you're never really going to get close.
Still, there are some real peaks in this story of a lazy summer, which finds a young woman returning to her hometown for no real reason and falling into the same rut that initially caused her to flee. A low-level crew-member on a film shoot, Ana is tasked with returning a rental car to the dealership and instead hits the open road, ending up back home if only because that's where the highway ends. There, she reconnects with two old flames, spends time with her hospitalized granny and decides to renovate a bathroom. That's sort of it, really.
Actress Salomé Richard cuts an interesting figure as our lead, clad in jean shorts and tank tops and with a cropped haircut that isn't so much tomboyish as it is gender agnostic. She goes through a series of different suitors in the film, and it's not accidental that they all kind of look the same, and they all kind of look like her. With gender and sexuality such hot topics these days, Ana makes a quirky kind of rebel. More apathetic than idealistic, she turns slackness into a political statement.
The only suitor she doesn't resemble, is, incidentally, the only one she rebuffs. That would be Gregoire (Lazare Gousseau), a would-be handyman helping Ana remodel. Their scenes together -- two goofballs with a sledgehammer, trying to turn a bathtub into shower -- act as a kind of narrative backbone for the otherwise episodic film, and it is always a joy to return to them. But then, two goofballs do not a film make, and a handful of laugh-out-loud pratfalls and a winsomely composed shots are no substitute for substance.
The film's entire pre-title sequence makes a perfect case-in-point. It opens on an unbroken five-minute shot, the camera fixed on Ana's profile as she drives, stresses, swears, swears and is ultimately berated by her boss. Making her feature-film debut, director Rachel Lang is throwing down the gauntlet here, saying "here I am!" and saying it well. But she's also starting her film on a roundabout bit of car theft, and then dithering around and eventually letting it fall away altogether. There's no moral problem introducing your lead character via negligently criminal activity, but if you don't really return to it, you do have a structural one.
Look, making a movie is hard work. Each and every one is the product of days of long hours, going for weeks on end, and for key creatives, years of writing and planning behind it. And director Rachel Lang, who remains an officer in the French army on top of being an award winning filmmaker, seems more diligent and tenacious than most. Baden Baden, with its rich colours and wry tone, is often a testament to her talent. But I have to ask, why devote so much passion and time and effort and blood and sweat and tears to something so... meandering?