'Shock Waves — First Name: Mathieu' ('Ondes de choc — Prenom: Mathieu'): Film Review | Berlin 2018

Courtesy of Berlinale
A fascinating character study and period piece.

Swiss director Lionel Baier's 'Shock Waves' contribution stars veteran actor Michel Vuillermoz alongside impressive newcomers Maxime Gorbatchevsky and Mickael Ammann.

A Swiss adolescent comes home after a miraculous escape from a serial killer in Shock Waves — First Name: Mathieu (Ondes de choc — Prenom: Mathieu). Part of a total of four features commissioned by Swiss TV that were inspired by real criminal cases from French-speaking Switzerland, First Name: Mathieu is one of two, together with Ursula Meier’s Shock Waves — Diary of My Mind, that had its world premiere in Berlin’s Panorama program. Given the positive reception of both features there, a healthy festival life beyond the small-screen seems plausible. The film could also function as a springboard for new Francophone acting talent, with intense newcomers Maxime Gorbatchevsky and Mickael Ammann both leaving a mark.

Shock Waves — First Name: Mathieu is set during the summer of 1986, when wiry 17-year-old Mathieu Reymond (French debutant Maxime Gorbatchevsky) is picked up and violently raped by a man when he’s trying to hitch a ride home after a date gone wrong at a motel. It turns out he was extremely lucky as the man was most likely a serial killer operating in the area whose other young victims all ended up dead.

Since the police have no idea what the criminal looks like, mustachioed Inspector Jotterand (Michel Vuillermoz) keeps dropping in on the blue-collar Reymond household to try and jog the teen’s memory. Shell-shocked, the teen, whose hair has been removed above one ear so doctors could stitch up his numerous head wounds, slowly pieces together a portrait of the man with the help of Jotterand and a police sketch artist.  

The screenplay of the TV project, which runs just 61 minutes, was written by Baier and Franco-Swiss novelist and screenwriter Julien Bouissoux. Their earlier collaborations, on the scripts of Baier’s La vanité and Longwave, were unlikely comedies against sobering thematic backdrops — euthanasia and Portugal’s Carnation Revolution, respectively — but here the material is more serious from the get-go. The duo does manage to wring some humor from the 1980s setting, particularly in the production and costume design and in the family’s mouth-agape amazement when confronted with the seemingly endless possibilities of the microwave (Mathieu’s Swiss-German mother, played by The White Ribbon’s Ursina Lardi, works for the company that introduced microwavable meals to Swiss consumers).

But for the most part, First Name: Mathieu focuses on the titular protagonist’s psychology more than any kind of humor or more obvious genre elements that would turn this yarn into a police procedural or whodunit. More specifically, the screenplay attempts to explore how a teenager, who is still striving to find himself, is torn between trying to forget a traumatic event and helping the police to catch the culprit so future crimes can be avoided. Though Baier and Bouissoux are finally hemmed in by the project’s necessarily short running time — which means there isn’t a lot of room to modulate Mathieu’s arc of conflicting emotions — they nonetheless manage to suggest quite a lot about the boy’s difficult coming-of-age.

There is Mathieu’s insistence, for example, he be allowed to speak to the perpetrator, should they find him, presumably so he can get a sense of closure. This simple request, however, is frowned upon by the adults around Mathieu. The sleepwalking adolescent, who is sometimes visited at night by visions of the almost faceless criminal, also needs to let off some steam occasionally to deal with the pressure. This is illustrated in one of the film’s most jocular and seemingly innocent scenes, in which Mathieu and his younger teen brother (striking newcomer Mickael Ammann) end up smashing crockery on the kitchen floor, with pieces of chinaware flying everywhere. It’s as if they want to destroy things so that what has happened to their family cannot destroy them.

If Shock Waves — First Name: Mathieu finally doesn’t quite measure up to Meier’s more narrative-driven Diary of My Mind, that has less to do with Baier’s filmmaking prowess than with the character-study format he chosen, which is a more awkward fit for an hourlong TV project. But there’s no denying that he has delivered a fascinating film that is not only a time capsule but that tries to grapple not with the crime itself but with how the victim and his family try to make sense of it. There’s also a wealth of small details that will ring true for local audiences, including how French-speaking Switzerland was a multicultural melting pot even in the 1980s, when people protested a new highway that would theoretically make the fragmented country, divided into hills and valleys, come together more but which in reality had disadvantages as well as advantages. 

Production companies: Bande a Part Films, Arte, SRG SSR, RTS
Cast: Maxime Gorbatchevsky, Michel Vuillermoz, Ursina Lardi, Mickael Ammann, Adrien Barazzone, Pierre-Isaie Duc
Director: Lionel Baier
Screenwriters: Julien Bouissoux, Lionel Baier
Producers: Lionel Baier, Agnieszka Ramu, Francoise Mayor
Director of photography: Patrick Lindenmaier
Production designer: Anne-Carmen Vuilleumier
Costume designer: Samantha Francois
Editor: Pauline Gaillard
Music: Christian Garcia-Gaucher
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Panorama)

In French, German, English, Portuguese
61 minutes