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Baden Baden

Baden Baden: on the couch with young director Rachel Lang

By Matthew Anderson

A coming-of-age tale and multi-layered quest for identity, Baden Baden is a strong feature debut from a very promising young female French filmmaker. This thought-provoking film will stay with you, intrigue you, even trouble you, long after its credits roll. With director Rachel Lang we travel from nowhere to nowhere not particularly fast, but the Strasbourg native has a firm hand on the wheel of this elusive, spontaneous journey.

Thanks in large part to the fleeting, uncertain desires of its impulsive lead, Ana (a tremendous performance by Salomé Richard, also making her feature debut), it relays in fits and starts a quest for self-discovery that meanders around the young French filmmaker's hometown and inside the mind of its troubled protagonist. Though there is something of the ephemeral, the transient and the haphazard to Ana's continual mishaps, the zeal and vigour with which this tempestuous twenty-something woman carries herself, her uncaring attitude towards her appearance and the intensity of her emotions make her character magnetic.

Salomé Richard and Olivier Chantreau in Baden Baden
Salomé Richard and Olivier Chantreau in Baden Baden

That the titular German spa town of Baden Baden is only alluded to on one occasion, but never visited, is symptomatic of a film that subverts expectation at every turn. "In a way it represents the false promise of the film," says Lang. "We enter the film thinking we're going to Baden Baden, but don't. It's a summation of the possible roads that we might take that are not necessarily better or worse. It's mysterious."   

A full-length extension of two former short films, in speaking of the trilogy Lang suggests this is not a case of Parts I, II and III: "The three films are not linked by a clear, logical narrative line. They all tell of a different manner of passing into adulthood. There's no specific chronology, they can be seen in any order". With this in mind, and given our very close alignment with Ana's point of view at all times, an audience's participation in the film depends more on how her experiences, worries and troubles make us feel than it does on what actually occurs.

Baden Baden's plot is deceptively, even frustratingly, slight and rambling but it works: after a failed job abroad, Ana returns home one summer to spend time with her ailing grandmother and in the process attempts to re-do her bathroom. That's really all there is to it. But it is via a renewal of this kinship, in emotionally tackling the demons of relationship with ex-boyfriend, Boris (Olivier Chantreau) and in destruction and recreation, that will provide Ana with a chance at new beginnings and looking to the future with at least the hope of more concrete plans. This grandmother-granddaughter relationship is crucial for Lang: "For me the through line of how she will find herself in this film is via her relationship with her grandmother and doing something manual, constructive, a concrete action with purpose".

The fact that Ana does not know where she's going – both literally and figuratively - is thematically important from the outset. The film opens with a steady long take and the work of cinematographer Fiona Braillon is striking throughout. Focused simply on Ana's face as she drives around in circles, completely lost between Brussels airport and a film set where she is supposed to deliver a star American actress, she is bawled out by an angry producer. We will later learn that Ana has spent time in London as well and after quitting her job in Belgium has no option but to head homewards, stealing her rented Porsche in the process!

At her happiest when travelling between places, running away from one problem to the next, an exhilarating score picks up speed as Ana zooms towards Strasbourg. Here she seeks out best friend, Simon (Swann Arlaud), who is also a former lover, then Boris, and after her grandmother takes a fall and is hospitalised, useless handyman Grégoire (Lazare Gousseau). All pushed and pulled by desire, confusion and anger in swirling uncertainty, these male-female relationships exert an equal force on Ana's understanding of self as her close family ties. Lang's navigation of this character, a superb central performance and questions left unanswered make Baden Baden a beguiling, arresting watch.   


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