(Rachel Lang, France/Belgium, 2015) 96 minutes


Director: Rachel Lang
Producer: Jospeh Rouschop
Screenplay: Rachel Lang
Cinematographer: Fiona Braillon
Editor: Sophie Vercruysse
Sound: Aline Huber
Salomé Richard (Ana)
Claude Gensac (Odette)
Lazare Gousseau (Grégoire)
Swann Arlaud (Simon)
Olivier Chantreau (Boris)
Jorijn Vriesendorp (Mira)

Reviews and notes

2016 Berlin, IndieLisboa (Portugal), Milano, Rio de Janeiro, Philadelphia, Stockholm, Singapore
2017 French (Wellington)

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 Baden is 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.
- Trevor Johnston, Time Out.

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.

Present in almost every scene, Richard carries the weight of the film. An androgynous figure, crop-headed, hairy of armpit and leg, clad even at a funeral in loose-fitting cut-off jeans and vest, she has the mournful yet impish air of a Pierrot. It's surely no coincidence that she bears a striking resemblance to Lang - the Jean-Pierre Leaud to her Francois Truffaut. Nor that she looks much more like her male lovers (played by Swann Arland and Olivier Chantreau as puppyish boy-men) than her long-haired, heavy-chested female friends Meriem and Mira. To a certain extent, then, Baden Baden plays with gender norms. But at the same time, the burden of anatomical femaleness is made visually explicit - as Ana squats to pee, watches her unborn foetus writhe on an ultrasound, or faces confusion over exactly which hole to put a pessary in.

Lang's film has a timely feel. I can think of numerous current academic projects to do with female subjectivity and queer identity that might make use of it, and it certainly passes the Bechdel test with flying colours. It sits alongside Rachel Tunnard's Adult Life Skills (2016), Desiree Akhavan's Appropriate Behaviour (2014) and Gillian Robespierre's Obvious Child(2014) as a film that uses both humour and lyricism to ask questions - sometimes uncomfortable ones - about what it is to be a young woman today.

It's perhaps more appropriate, though, to bracket Lang alongside the artist/director Clement Cogitore, also from Alsace (whose 2012 work 'The Dark Knight' features in Baden Baden and whose The Wakhan Front showed at Cannes 2015), and Richard herself as one of a group of young French filmmakers making perplexing, hypnotic works that feel genuinely fresh. Everything you need to know about one young mans feelings for Ana is shown in the way he thoughtlessly wanders in and out of shot as they Skype. Everything you need to know about her feelings for him lies in the taut rigidity of her shoulders as she waits, still as a painting, for him to finish another call.

Elliptical in the extreme, full of gaps into which our imagination first seeps then rushes, Baden Baden requires a certain amount of patience from the viewer, but richly repays it. It's testament to Lang's intelligent, assured direction that the film feels like the early work of a great talent. At the end, one character gives the tiniest - tiniest - shake of the head, and encapsulated in this gesture, which is almost not there, is all the mystery and weirdness and promise of Lang's stunning debut. I for one can't wait to see what she does next.
- Catherine Wheatley, Sight and Sound, October 2016.

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