'Baden Baden': Berlin Review

BADEN BADEN still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of Jour2Fete
Portrait of the artist as a young and idle woman.

French director Rachel Lang premiered her debut feature in Berlin’s Forum sidebar.

In Baden Baden, an aimless 26-year-old woman returns to her hometown of Strasbourg, reconnecting with old flames while desperately trying to build a shower stall in her grandmother’s bathroom.

That’s not much of a story to build a film on, but writer-director Rachel Lang and star Salome Richard manage to craft an intriguing feature debut filled with keen observations and slices of dark humor, in a work that may stretch the patience of certain viewers while pleasing fans of stark art-house narratives. After playing in Berlin’s Forum sidebar, this Franco-Belgian co-production should see fest action and niche theatrical bids from audacious distributors.

An opening sequence-shot gives us a good idea of where the sly, tomboyish and rather fragile Ana (Richard) finds herself: Working as an assistant on a movie, she drives around in circles with the lead actress (Kate Moran), arriving almost an hour late to set. After getting balled out by one of the bosses, who makes her cry on the spot, she takes the production’s Porsche Panamera for a joy ride all the way to her native Strasbourg, where she shows up at the apartment of her straight-talking, fun-loving grandmother, Odette (Claude Gensac, On My Way).

The rest of the movie follows Ana’s zigzagging trajectory as she tries to decide what her next move is going to be, especially after a nasty fall lands Odette in the hospital. While installing a new shower in the woman’s bathroom – a process that takes several weeks and allows for a few moments of home improvement slapstick – Ana gets back together with her ex, Boris (Olivier Chantreau), a dashingly pretentious video artist who is obviously not the guy she needs, though seems to be the guy she still wants.

Very little happens in terms of a traditional plot, though Lang – whose 2010 short, For You I Will Fight, won the Silver Leopard at Locarno – manages to keep things interesting enough through an eclectic blend of minimal realism, deadpan comedy and a handful of sequences bordering on the surreal, including a recurring dream where Ana follows Boris through the jungle like Eve in the Garden of Eden.

Other scenes set the heroine against the drab modernist backdrop of Strasbourg, with Belgian cinematographer Fiona Braillon using fixed, naturalistic imagery to convey the almost prison-like feeling the city lends itself, while a late excursion to Le Corbusier’s stunning Notre Dame de Haut chapel inspires something closer to awe.

Richard has appeared in Lang’s other work and is evidently a sort of muse for the filmmaker, offering up a delicate performance that swings between fits of joy and despair while conveying the ennui of Ana’s purposeless existence. And although this kind of plotless affair can definitely be trying at times, the film nonetheless provides its share of emotions, especially in the scenes centered around Odette’s gradual demise, as well as those involving the clumsy relationship between Ana and Gregoire (Lazare Gousseau), a shaggy handyman who cannot actually fix anything.

It’s during such moments that Baden Baden reveals itself to be more of a drama than an experimental narrative, and as Ana struggles to find her way in life, what ultimately emerges is the hopeful portrait of a girl who's down but not yet out.

Production companies: Chevaldeuxtrois, Tarantula
Cast: Salome Richard, Claude Gensac, Swann Arlaud, Olivier Chantreau, Zabout Breitman
Director, screenwriter: Rachel Lang
Producers: Jeremy Forni, Joseph Rouschop, Valerie Bournonville
Director of photography: Fiona Braillon
Production designer: Jean-Francois Sturm
Costume designer: Delphine Laloy
Editor: Sophie Vercruysse
Casting director: Kris Portier de Bellair
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Forum)
Sales: Jour2Fete

In French, German
95 minutes