French filmmaker Rachel Lang’s wonderful first feature Baden Baden reminded me, watching, of a running gag in Seinfeld. TV’s famous “show about nothing”, a nearly apt description for Lang’s own minimally plotted film, kept referencing a fictive art movie called Rochelle Rochelle — “one girl’s strange, erotic journey from Milan to Minsk”.
Seinfeld never showed any of this arthouse teaser. The hoot, for moviemanes, was the rarefied, breathy minimalism of the concept plot and the title’s raptly tolling invocation: so very French, so forthrightly fey. Just so, but to magical effect, is Baden Baden. In Lang’s, strange, erotic odyssey across Europe, a jobless heroine, Ana (boyish-featured Salomé Richard, superb), drifts with her drifting plot. There are four sort-of boyfriends, from artist/intellectual Boris (Olivier Chantreau) to the Arab youth she falls for in the story’s valete. (In the almost-last scene they sit gazing at Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut chapel, that surreal marvel perched in rural reality.) And in home town Strasbourg there are parents and grandparents: notably the paternal gran for whom Ana bashes a bathroom into a shower room, over weeks, with help from another almost-boyfriend, a DIY plumber.
What’s the film about? Nothing and everything. It’s about a human being circling her life like a wistful observer, or surveying it from some mystical height. So many scenes have characters gazing from balconies. So many scenes address emotions like butterflies caught or grasped at on the wing. (The love-struck, tongue-tied plumber makes a poignantly hilarious attempt to put the moves on Ana in a bar; it’s a Marceau-worthy moment of mime.) So many scenes poke fun at dreams of transformation, whether of lives or bathrooms. And there are heightening, haunting moments when reality jumps a gear — recurring visions of a naked girl (Ana) and boy in a steaming, Edenic jungle — and we seem transported to supernal realms of wish fulfilment.
It’s French art cinema. So don’t expect Die Hard 6. This film teases and eludes. It’s Continental drift. But few films so make us want to drift with them.