'Particles' ('Les Particules'): Film Review | Cannes 2019

Cannes Film Festival
Growing up is hard to do.

Blaise Harrison's first feature, a Directors' Fortnight entry, is set on the Franco-Swiss border, where the CERN collidor lies buried beneath the ground.

The French debut film Particles (Les Particules) has a pitch that could hardly be more intriguing, as it combines a very unusual location with some of the expected tropes of a well-defined genre. It is, in its essence, an adolescent coming-of-age story, with its awkward collisions of hopes, feelings, fears and desires. Its setting is the Pays de Gex, on the French side of the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva, where the world’s largest particle accelerator, CERN’s Large Hadron Collidor, lies buried about 300 feet beneath the ground, where it tries to re-create the Big Bang. But in his first feature, writer-director Blaise Harrison seems more interested in atmosphere than plot, a sensation that’s reinforced by the fact that the filmmaker refuses to draw any clear parallels between what happens above and below the ground, especially when beautiful but increasingly inexplicable things start to occur.

While finally too slight to set commercial venues on fire, this Directors’ Fortnight title does suggest Harrison is an expert creator of mood and ambiance and has a young voice that could be further developed. Les Films du Losange handles international sales and will release the item locally June 5.

Particles kicks off as a hushed, damp and penumbral socio-realist film, as if the Dardenne brothers had moved to the foothills of the Alps and turned off the light. It’s the middle of December and teenagers climb onto buses to go to school long before dawn. Pierre-Andre (Thomas Daloz), or P.A. for short, has a full head of dark hair but only a little down on his upper lip, and his behavior, especially around girls, is about as uncertain as that attempt at facial hair. At the school cafeteria, for example, several of his peers flick some drops of water from their cups back and forth across the table to make each other wet. P.A. wants to join in but has to top all others, so he empties his entire cup all over the girl sitting opposite him. Understandably, she’s not amused.  

As part of a school trip, P.A. also gets to visit the CERN collider and on the way there, he sees a meadow move in a way that doesn’t seem quite natural. As his teenage life sluggishly progresses — with him hanging out with his friends, including his best bud, Merou (Salvatore Ferro); practicing with his rock-band buddies; going to school and awkward house parties and shady drug dealers — the instances in which P.A. starts seeing things that aren’t fully explicable start to accumulate. Is it the drugs or the magic mushrooms he's into? Is it because he has stopped taking his meds, as he confesses to Roshine (Nea Lueders), a German girl he likes and very awkwardly tries to befriend? Or is something else going on? In the story’s entire midsection, Harrison keeps the tone so grounded in smudgy socio-realist conventions that even the viewers might be starting to wonder whether their eyes are playing tricks on them, an impression reinforced by the fact that Pierre-Andre seems more vaguely puzzled and even bemused by what he notices than downright worried or alarmed.

(Spoilers in the following paragraph.) This laissez-faire attitude changes after a fateful overnight camping trip during which mushrooms are consumed and a heavy bout of snowfall occurs during the night. The next morning, in the virginally white landscape, Merou is nowhere to be found, something that doesn’t initially seem to worry P.A. all that much. But the school principal lets P.A. have it when he finds out about Merou's disappearance. Here, Harrison makes the wise decision to leave the school director entirely off-camera, so we can hear what he barks at his student but we only get to see P.A.’s increasingly pained and worried face. It’s followed by another incredible shot, not much later, in which the camera slowly pans across a landscape, in which we see a large search party combing through the wintry woods before finally ending on P.A.’s face, as if he’d been the axis on which the entire movement turned. These choices are clearly the decisions of someone who understands cinema’s capacity for creating emotions through images and allowing audiences momentarily into — or at least very close to — a character’s point of view. 

But these moments are far too few to really connect to either P.A. or his adolescent feelings. It’s hard to even say whether he just senses a general feeling of alienation or whether, more specifically, he might feel he lives in a (natural) world more complex than he could ever understand — or whether he's entered some kind of different dimension in which things are just all slightly off. And how all this connects to his scary but also necessary growing pains as a teenager isn’t addressed very explicitly either. The CERN metaphor, with its potential to equate the re-creation of the Big Bang with an adolescent coming into their own, is finally more of an idea in the background than part of the film’s core concept, while the ending doesn’t really tie things together so much as leave the audience with a poetic but otherwise quite enigmatic image.

In terms of its technical package, Colin Leveque’s grungy and supremely atmospheric cinematography was already cited as a highlight and it is complemented by the score, from mono-monikered Belgian composer Elg, and the complex soundscape. All these elements imbue Particules with a convincing sense of mystery. Digital special effects are relatively simple but fit Harrison's overall aesthetic perfectly.  

Production companies: Les Films du Poison, Bande a Part Films
Cast: Thomas Daloz, Nea Lueders, Salvatore Ferro, Leo Couilfort, Nicolas Marcant, Emma Josserand
Director: Blaise Harrison
Screenplay: Blaise Harrison, Mariette Desert
Producers: Estemme Fialon, Lionel Baier
Director of photography: Colin Leveque
Production design: Florence Emery
Editors: Isabelle Manquillet, Gwenola Heaulme
Music: Elg
Casting: Blaise Harrison, Elie Grappe
Sales: Les Films du Losange
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors’ Fortnight)

In French, English
No rating, 98 minutes