'Heroes Don’t Die' ('Les Heros ne meurent jamais'): Film Review | Cannes 2019

Courtesy of Les Films du Worso
An awkward melange of history, personal odyssey and ghost story.

Writer-director Aude Léa Rapin's feature debut follows a French documentary crew on the trail of a mysterious reincarnation.

In French director Aude Lea Rapin’s first feature, Heroes Don’t Die (Les Heroes ne meurent jamais), a supernatural event leads two friends on a voyage through Bosnia’s war-torn past, where they brush up against local survivors while uncovering a few dark secrets about themselves. All of this is captured in the form of a faux TV documentary, as if The Blair Witch Project crossed paths with the ghosts of Srebrenica and other horrors that racked the Balkans throughout the early 1990s.

Ambitious in intention and making strong use of its memorable locations, Heroes nonetheless comes across as a pretentious attempt to place personal traumas within the greater scope of historical ones. The lead character — a 34-year-old Frenchie who claims to be the reincarnation of a Russian soldier who died in 1983 — is meant to carry the narrative, but he can be so irritating at times that his journey is hardly moving, even if Rapin does a decent job of making it seem somewhat believable. Premiering in the Critics’ Week in Cannes, the film could see action in Europe but will have a hard time pitching its artsy high-concept approach elsewhere.

An opening scene, filmed on grainy video, shows the shaggy rebel Joachim (Jonathan Couzinie) confessing to his best friend, the journalist Alice (Adele Haenel), about a bizarre occurrence that happened to him earlier that day: Apparently he was walking in the streets of Paris when a stranger suddenly started shouting at him, claiming he was the reincarnation of a Russian soldier named Zoran Tadic who died in Bosnia on Aug. 21, 1983 — the same day that Joachim happened to be born.

While Alice seems skeptical, Joachim, who starts having nightmares and making automatic drawings of bloody battle scenes, believes it could all be true. Not wanting to let her buddy down, Alice decides to accompany Joachim on a trip to the Balkans so he can unlock the mystery behind his strange visions. She also takes along a sound engineer (Antonia Buresi, providing slight comic relief) and an unseen cameraman documenting the whole thing, placing Heroes in the realm of a found footage movie.

Indeed, when the film starts off it could almost be mistaken for a horror flick, with Joachim creepily waking up in the middle of the night as if possessed by Zoran’s spirit, after which Alice whisks him away to a country still reeling from a deadly decades-old conflict. But the script, which Rapin wrote in collaboration with Couzinie, then veers in an entirely different direction: one in which the characters work out their own issues against the backdrop of Bosnia’s dark and disturbing past.

Are we really supposed to care about Joachim’s delirium when faced with the realities of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, where roughly 8,000 Bosniaks — predominantly men and boys — were executed by Serb forces? The filmmakers seem to think so, but the result is a movie that feels incredibly shallow and even ill-advised, trying to give Joachim (who, we soon learn, has major demons of his own to contend with) a kind of personal catharsis in a place whose inhabitants will never get the same chance.

At best, Heroes benefits from a docu-style technique that makes strong use of the Bosnian settings, with cameraman Paul Guilhaume (Ava) capturing a variety of backdrops, including a massive cemetery, an Olympic bobsled run that was transformed into a battleground during the war and a remote farming settlement at the foot of the mountains.

Performances are uneven, with Couzinie not always convincing as a character who, in any case, rubs you the wrong way from the start. On the other hand, Croisette regular Haenel (appearing in two other Cannes titles this year) shows plenty of conviction as Alice — a girl whose heavy moral consciousness, especially vis-a-vis the Bosnian people, compensates for a film that uses the country’s devastating history as a pretext for something far less powerful.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Critics’ Week)
Production company: Les Films du Worso
Cast: Adele Haenel, Jonathan Couzinie, Antonia Buresi, Hasija Boric, Vesna Stilinovic
Director: Aude Lea Rapin
Screenwriter: Aude Lea Rapin, with the collaboration of Jonathan Couzinie
Producers: Sylvie Pialat, Benoit Quainon
Director of photography: Paul Guilhaume
Production designer: Henriette Desjonqueres
Editor: Juliette Alexandre
Casting director: Timka Grin
Sales: Le Pacte

In French, English, Serbo-Croatian
115 minutes