Atomic Age: Berlin Film Review

Berlinale Film Festival
Domink Wojcik and Eliott Paquet
Sorrowful and seductive, this is an arresting mood piece about two male friends adrift in a Paris night that becomes a displaced emotional landscape.

A critics prize-winner in the Berlinale Panorama section, Helena Klotz's short feature makes evocative use of sound and imagery to explore the mysteries of a romantic youthful friendship.

BERLIN – Wading through festival lineups these days, it’s tempting to conclude that the real tragedy of the self-defined lost generation is that they can’t stop making movies about youthful anomie. The fundaments of storytelling frequently come a distant second to the creation of mood and atmosphere, conveying inarticulate feelings of nihilistic anger or romanticized despair. Leaning in the latter direction, Héléna Klotz’s Atomic Age (L’Age Atomique) is thematically familiar yet also striking, its stylistic control and haunting imagery making it stand out from the pack.

Winner of the Berlin Panorama section’s FIPRESCI international critics’ prize, the film’s running time of just over an hour will make it a difficult fit beyond specialized programming. But it announces the director (daughter of French filmmaker Nicolas Klotz) as a distinctive talent. Gay festivals in particular should take a look, even though the enigmatic film is more an exploration of emotional states than sexuality, which is treated as something fluid and amorphous.

The single-night odyssey begins with impulsive pretty boy Victor (Eliott Paquet) and his vampire-chic Central European pal Rainer (Dominik Wojcik) sucking back Red Bull cocktails on a train into Paris to go clubbing. In snatches of conversation that range from whimsical to pretentious, they appear to be the usual self-infatuated Euro-hipsters, high on their own mystique. But as they move through a nightscape that has the density and disorienting currents of an ocean, something more profound and poignant emerges from their ennui.

Inside the club, Victor hits on a girl (Mathilde Bisson) while Rainer shrugs off the dancefloor advances of an androgynous guy (Luc Chessel), in both cases the too-cool rejection fueling the would-be seducers’ desire. Outside again, Victor picks a fight with a cocky club kid (Niels Schneider) and then antagonizes a bouncer.

Drifting apart and then drawn back together like magnets throughout the dreamy movie, Victor and Rainer take a subway to a wooded area. They confess feelings of mutual need for one another – perhaps sexual on Rainer’s part, perhaps not on Victor’s. In the spectral setting of the silent forest at night, away from the harshness of the urban world, they seem freer and more unburdened than at any point prior, but also like melancholy ghosts.

Klotz, who wrote the script in collaboration with Elisabeth Perceval, has a tendency to shove subtextual dialogue into the characters’ mouths: “I feel like a little boat sinking at sea,” “I feel empty, nothing interests me.” But this fits with a depiction of Victor and Rainer as youths who take a poetic view of themselves and their ambiguous relationship, sometimes in earnest and sometimes ironically.

The pairing of Paquet, whose insouciance tinged with aggression seems very much part of the contemporary environment, with Wojcik, who suggests the somber rumination of Old Europe, adds an intriguing slant to their dynamic. Klotz is less subtle in threading ripples of 20th century hangover into the complex soundtrack, with snatches of speeches by Reagan and Bush senior registering as a somewhat grandiose device.

Visually and aurally, the film casts a spell. Cinematographer Héléne Louvart finds other-worldly dimensions in shadow, light and blanketing darkness, while capturing moments of both poseur affectation and pensive introspection in the characters’ faces. Most impressive is the fugue-like synthesizer score by the director’s brother Ulysse Klotz, which blends Gothic electronica with pounding techno beats in the club scenes, ultimately building into a magnificent requiem that swells organically out of the closing images of the forest.

Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Panorama)

Production companies: Kidam

Cast: Eliott Paquet, Dominik Wojcik, Niels Schneider, Mathilde Bisson, Clemence Boisnard, Luc Chessel, Arnaud Rebotini

Director: Héléna Klotz

Screenwriters: Héléna Klotz, Elisabeth Perceval

Producer: Alexandre Perrier

Director of photography: Héléne Louvart

Music: Ulysse Klotz

Costume designer: Sarah Da Silva

Editors: Cristobal Fernandez, Marion Monnier

Sales: Rendez-vous Pictures International

No rating, 66 minutes