Baden Baden (2016)
Dir: Rachel Lang
Starr: Salomé Richard (Ana), Claude Gensac (La grand-mère), Lazare Gousseau, (Grégoire), Swann Arlaud (Simon)
Belgium / France, 96mins
Mubi have already received plaudits from me in this Ten of the Year rundown regarding their promotion of the excellent Irish pseudo-documentary Further Beyond (2016). Another production that they championed was Rachel Lang’s feature debut, the brilliantly observed comic drama Baden Baden. Not only did the film streaming service give us this accomplished work, but they also gave us the background shading and texture of two earlier short films that featured the same central protagonist Ana, played with such guileless and self-possessed charm by the mildly androgynous Salomé Richard.
Back in 2010 Pour toi je ferai bataille depicted the young Alsacian Ana opting to join the military to give her life some purpose and meaning. This was a film obsessed with procedure, order and hierarchy, as well as issues of gender within a closed community such as the military. It featured a scene of exceptional comic and dramatic quality (the communal shower scene toward the film’s end), that proved an early indicator of Lang’s core strength as a filmmaker, namely her ability to seamlessly wed together humour and dramatic tension, often to poignant and affecting ends. One year after this film debut Lang returned to her heroine in the fantastically monikered Les navets blanc empêchent de dormer (2011). This film began with Ana now out of the army and tentatively pursuing a career as a sculptor under the tutelage of her uncle (played by Patrick Lang, the director’s father). Ana is also in a rather toxic relationship with an egocentric young artist called Boris (Julien Sigalas). It is the unravelling of that relationship that sees her having to take stock of her life decisions once again, setting us up for her initial circumstances in Baden Baden.
At the start of the feature Ana is captured in a tightly-framed, shoulder-height tracking shot as she drives a film star to a Belgian film set. They are running late and on arrival at the set Ana is chewed out by the production manager. At the end of the film shoot Ana is supposed to drop the hire car back at the dealership, but instead she decides to drive back to her grandmother’s flat in Strasbourg. From just this opening ten minutes we are now keenly aware of the restless nature of Ana’s mid-twenties. It is apparent that she has put her sculptural pursuits on hold and has tested out film production work. Boris (now played by Olivier Chantreau) is still a presence within her life, simply through proximity, but there is a sense that she has tried to move beyond him. Having chosen not to take on motherhood, and being no longer part of the military, Ana’s brief homecoming turns into a summer-long re-evaluation of her existence. She is given some common-sense guidance by her ailing grandmother (played by de Funès veteran Claude Gensac), and strikes up a curious working relationship with a hitherto peripheral presence in the trilogy Grégoire (a perfectly dead-pan comic foil in Lazare Gousseau). The work that she takes on during the summer is the remodelling of her grandmother’s shower unit while the old woman is in hospital with a hip injury. This remodelling, however, is as much to do with Ana working upon her own sense of aimless drift than it is to do with any real benefit for her grandmother.
Lang is, even if in microcosm, following in the footsteps of filmmakers like Truffaut and Richard Linklater, by choosing to return to the same character, played by the same actor, over a considerable length of real time. Baden Baden works as a standalone feature, but it is greatly enhanced by being viewed within the wider chronological context of the trilogy. Each of the films demonstrates how the often infuriatingly passive Ana decisively comes to the plate when forced to reconsider her life’s course. Lang repeatedly throws us in to Ana’s life at a moment of running away. She runs away from Strasbourg and its suffocating insularity in 2010, only to immerse herself within an even more insular sense of community. By 2011 she has run away from this community to return to Strasbourg and the creative circles that she had struggled to integrate herself into before. Despite the repetitive narrative openings, Ana is not simply going around in circles, but is in fact evolving. Her time within the military has given her valuable life experience that we see informing her work as a sculptor, as well as her self-confidence as a strong-willed woman among badly behaved and boyish men (I am thinking of the train scene from Les navets… ). It is Ana’s gradual awareness of her evolution that marks Lang’s work out as a particularly observant character study.
Having branched out from Strasbourg at the beginning of Baden Baden, the summer of retrenching that ensues is one in which Ana finally extirpates the bedevilling Boris from her life. In so doing she also exercises some of his romantic cruelty in the cold way in which she extinguishes Grégoire’s flickering flame. Strasbourg’s insular nature plays out as a series of returns to past experiences, as if Ana is measuring her present self in relation what little regard she now gives to difficult aspects of her past. It has been a long time since I have seen a hometown laid so forensically bare within a film; a thought made all the more remarkable when considering the generally static nature of Lang’s framing throughout the film. Interior and exterior alike are treated in the exact same manner, both being brightly lit by DOP Fiona Braillon, who accentuates garish colours, such as turquoise, and luminous yellows and pinks. Strasbourg is itself an unusual ‘nowhere’ space in cinematic terms, rarely used as a location within film. As a result there is a fresh revelatory quality to Lang’s filming of the city, that shies away from the obviously touristic, and instead thrusts us into those spaces that resonate most with Ana. These are locations of her own history and development, all the events that precede the first short film of the trilogy. Lang also makes much of the European nexus point that Strasbourg represents, being part of a peripheral area of France (Alsace), that has been historically contested. The city is close to multiple borders: Belgian, German, Luxembourg and Swiss. Lang’s feature moves fluidly between these spaces, starting in Belgium and briefly sojourning in Germany, where things are more efficiently constructed, as one sly joke in the film goes.
The most comical moments of the film revolve around this use of fixed framing, to create a sense of what lies outside of the frame bearing down upon the events taking place within the frame. Lang and her editor, Sophie Vercrussye, are genuinely innovative in the way that they piece together sequenced vignettes over larger durations of screen time. At times, it is as if the film is in fact an intricately layered symphony of comic sketches, in which the punchline or visual gag is deferred till such a point as it seems to belong to another routine altogether. Lang is fortunate to have discovered a lead actress with such consummate comic timing, and the relationships that Ana has with both her grandmother and Grégoire are fundamental to the way in which the film undercuts perfect miniatures of dramatic tension with a sharp verbal or visual gag (Ana’s mother visiting grandma’s flat, Grégoire and Ana cluelessly working on the shower, or Ana’s encroachment upon the character of Amar as he works upon a building site). Ultimately, it is the control of these comic aspects of the film that give a greater honesty to Ana’s various filial and social relationships. What is, perhaps, most impressive with Lang’s feature is that it manages to capture an ineffable moment of finding oneself, by finding a concrete image of expansiveness on to which Ana can project an intimate sense of belonging. The closing image of Ana and Amar beholding Le Corbusier’s uniquely fluid architectural design of the Notre Dame du Haut chapel in Ronchamp gives visual expression to the growing sense of fluidity and ease that Ana is discovering within herself, and particularly in relation to her perception of relationships. It is the perfect punctuation point for a feature film, and film trilogy, that Lang has gone on record as stating she will not return to. Having just been introduced to Ana, I, for one, am sorry that this is the end… but what an end.