'Shock Waves — Diary of My Mind' ('Ondes de choc — Journal de ma tete'): Film Review | Berlin 2018

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
Shocking in a good way.

Swiss director Ursula Meier (Lea Seydoux starrer 'Sister') casts Kacey Mottet Klein as a young man who shot his parents and Fanny Ardant as his literature teacher.

A high-school kid from Switzerland with a desire to kill his parents sends a pages-long confession to his French teacher before committing the act in Shock Waves — Diary of My Mind (Ondes de choc — Journal de ma tete). The film is part of a series of four films, commissioned by Swiss TV, inspired by real criminal cases from the French-speaking western part of the country. Two of these, this one (directed by Ursula Meier) as well as Lionel Baier’s Shock Waves — First Name: Mathieu, are presented as part of the Panorama program at the Berlinale and should find a berth at other film and TV showcases before segueing to heavy small-screen rotation at home and abroad. Diary of My Mind has the added marketability of starring Fanny Ardant in what’s arguably her strongest and most fascinating role since the early 2000s.

Ursula Meier reunites here with the prodigiously talented young actor Kacey Mottet Klein, who was discovered by the Belgium-educated director when she was looking for an actor to play the son of Isabelle Huppert’s character in her Cannes-selected film Home. He’d go on to play the brother of Lea Seydoux in Meier’s Sister, though he’s probably most famous internationally for the lead role in Andre Techine’s well-received Being 17, which premiered in Berlin two years ago.

Here, the now 19-year-old plays Benjamin Feller, a troubled teenager who, after the discovery of his dad’s military weapon at home, can’t stop thinking about killing his weakling father (and admitting to himself he’d then have to also kill his mom because the idea of her being a widow and the mother of a felon is too depressing). The young man might be disturbed but at least he’s meticulous: Ben’s literature teacher, Esther Fontanel (Ardant), has asked her students to write a piece that reflects on their lives in a literary way of their choosing and Feller has committed all of his darkest thoughts to paper in the week leading up to the killing.

The real events on which the story is based occurred in February 2009, which explains why the classrooms weren’t yet crawling with smartphones. Feller, from a — for Swiss standards — modest background doesn’t even write up his assignment on a computer, instead writing everything out by hand. Before committing the heinous crime, he posts the packet of pages to his teacher but the fat envelope hasn’t arrived yet when Ben staggers into a police post after the fact, a mess of adrenaline, amoral confusion and orphaned desperation.

This leads to Fontanel being ordered to open the package in the presence of a judge (Jean-Philippe Ecoffey), who starts asking her about her reading and writing assignments and insinuating there might be a link between literature that talks about dark themes and realities and Ben’s double murder (if Fontanel had designed video games, she would have probably been put directly behind bars).

Meier wrote the screenplay with her regular co-writer Antoine Jaccoud and together with editor Nelly Quettier— who also cuts Leos Carax’ narratively complex films — they create a dense storytelling web from the get-go. After Fontanel has opened the envelope, the film flashes back to a week earlier, corresponding to the start of Ben’s diary. The events after and before the murder are thus told in alternating scenes until they meet in a sequence that cross-cuts between Ben banging his head against the wall of his cell and Ben firing his father’s gun at his parents. The violent and visceral charge of this scene is preceded by a more hushed but equally potent confrontation when the single, middle-aged teacher and her teenage pupil finally come face to face in prison. Their uncomfortable dynamic is suggested through words as much as body language and looks, with Ben happy to see perhaps the only adult he still cares for but Esther clearly on the defensive about having been drawn into something that’s not only in and of itself despicable but something that has allowed the authorities to question the very thing she has dedicated her life to.  

Unlike a film like Joachim Lafosse's Our Chrildren, Meier's main objective is not to explain Ben's perhaps altogether inexplicable behavior and decision-making process (a character like Ben's father, for example, has no backstory that might help explain the teen's hatred toward him). Instead, the filmmaker's more interested in how the act created a ripple effect — or shock wave — in both Ben and Esther's lives and in exploring how art might console and inspire a lot of people but might also have its limits in what it can do and how it can be taken and used.

Perhaps because of the TV film format, Meier only has just over an hour at her disposal and while the film starts off strongly, its third act feels increasingly compressed and rushed. A cocky defense lawyer (Stephanie Blanchoud) who clearly dislikes Ardant’s character and might even suspect her of malicious intent, is fascinating but also frustratingly short-changed. Ditto a shrink (Carlo Brandt) with whom Ardant has one of the film’s strongest scenes toward the end.

Though Klein by no means phones in his performance, Ardant quietly steals the movie away from her younger colleague as the huskily voiced teacher’s inner turmoil is revealed to be almost as wild and complex as that of her charge. It also helps that her character takes center stage in the film's closing stretch. It has been a long time since we’ve seen the actress so emotionally transparent and vulnerable, and it’s a joy to know she’s lost nothing of her mesmerizing power to keep you glued to the screen while seemingly doing very, very little.

The cinematography, by Jeanne Lapoirie (BPM, 8 Femmes) feels slightly boxed in by the work’s small-screen destination, with the actors and the story finally leaving more of an impression than the project’s formal qualities. Various Baroque-era composers from Italy provide the Sturm-und-Drang soundtrack.

Production companies: Bande a Part Films, Arte, SRG SSR, RTS
Cast: Fanny Ardant, Kacey Mottet Klein, Jean-Philippe Ecoffey, Stephanie Blanchoud, Carlo Brandt, Jean-Quentin Chatelain
Director: Ursula Meier
Screenplay: Antoine Jaccoud, Ursula Meier
Producers: Lionel Baier, Agnieszka Ramu, Francoise Mayor
Director of photography: Jeanne Lapoirie
Production designer: Ivan Niclass
Costume designer: Anna Van Bree
Editor: Nelly Quettier
Venue: Berlinale (Panorama)

In French
No rating, 70 minutes