Directed by Rachel Lang
November 25-December 1 at Anthology Film Archives
Why do we find ourselves adrift? Ana (Salomé Richard), the twenty-something heroine of Rachel Lang’s ebullient and substantial first feature, Baden Baden, is drifting through her time of unlearning—a heady and precarious period, often between youth and adulthood, when all the moral lessons of childhood have eroded, and no structures of commitment, purpose, or devotion have yet been built in their place. In the absence of such infrastructure, personal and political passions can toss us with the force of floods. Ana’s infrastructure, such as it is, begins with a walk-in shower.
The shower is meant for her grandmother (Claude Gensac), who lives alone and struggles with the bathtub (hence the Baden Baden joke—nobody in this Strasbourg-set film actually visits that nearby German spa). Aimlessness is not inactivity, however. Even before the home-improvement project, Ana is trying to act—Lang opens with a long close-up of Ana’s boyish profile, driving a film production’s car. Ana is a disastrous runner: she is late; she is berated; the towering actress she’s chauffeuring sweetly wishes her good luck and a more suitable job. Apparently undaunted, Ana takes off in the rented Porsche and borrowed fancy dress, changing on the way into her uniform of denim shorts, bright bra-less tank-top, and sneakers. At home, she finds her old friends and old loves marching in harmonious lockstep with time, so she enlists a housing goods store clerk, Gregoire (Lazare Gousseau), and in a series of lightly absurdist interludes, smashes up her grandmother’s bathroom with a hammer.
How to explain this drifter’s particular appeal? It’s not that Ana is an aimless-woman variant on all those soul-searching European gentlemen and the slackers Stateside; Baden Baden is set apart not by the gender of its protagonist but by the film’s intelligence. Moving quickly between scenes, powered by sex and punk (“I want to be unisex!” Ana sings along to La Femme in the quasi-stolen car) as much as the boisterousness of its cast (including Swann Arlaud as a friend-bedmate and Olivier Chantreau as a bedmate-fiend), the film may be episodic, but its story is quite concrete. Ana begins and ends a project and a job; one friend is raising a child; another is beginning to show his art abroad; a third wants to join the French Foreign Legion. Cinematographer Fiona Braillon shoots the dressed and the undressed blithely and attentively, in compositions suffused with summertime light, against which Ana is forever squinting. When more conventionally dramatic events occur, they aren’t interruptions of a frivolous milieu but the consequences of relationships that may be playful, but are never insulated from the wider world Lang economically motions toward.
Although a neon scene in a karaoke bar feints unfortunately toward the fey, Baden Baden is largely surefooted, a pleasure to watch though by no means limited to easy pleasures. One reason for the film’s balance is Lang’s awareness of the historical and film-historical occasion. Ana’s grandmother peels potatoes in a tiled kitchen that may as well be Jeanne Dielman’s; Ana’s great love, the tremendously self-involved Boris, offers her a choice of standard and feminist pick-up lines. They stare at each other. One of them moves first. Which one? The truth beneath Boris’s lines and Ana’s playful ingenuity is still the great difficulty of feeling, since feelings remain, in our and every other time, difficult and potentially disastrous—a force that we build edifices and make films to understand. Ana’s final pilgrimage to Corbusier’s many-windowed, arc-like Notre Dame du Haut is a proclamation of faith in an original and solid art, by an artist who takes herself just seriously enough.