Soldate Jeannette: Sundance Review

An atmospheric European film more concerned with ideas than telling a comprehensible story.

Austrian director Daniel Hoesl's experimental art film is a bold throwback to the '60s, but who knows what's going on in it.

PARK CITY -- A throwback to European art films of the ’60s, Austrian director Daniel Hoesl’s Soldate Jeannette is an obscure, elliptical experiment more consumed with form and ideas than telling a comprehensible story. Produced by something called the European Film Conspiracy, the film was shot without a script on a minuscule budget as the actors improvised their characters and the action. Although there are images of great beauty and the suggestion of a philosophical underpinning, this is a theoretical work that will be of interest to only a very rarefied audience.

Hoesl’s strategy seems to be to give viewers as little information as possible, embodied by the unwavering poker face of his heroine Fanni, played with emotional cool by Johanna Orsini-Rosenberg. She starts out as a Viennese bourgeois lady who lunches and shops for expensive dresses, which she doesn’t seem to have the money to pay for. Apparently on the verge of bankruptcy and losing her Old World apartment cluttered with expensive furniture, there is mention of perhaps a husband or longtime partner in jail. When a relative and solicitor show up to evict her, she shows no emotion and hurries them out so she can get to her martial arts class. White-robed women kicking the air and thrusting as they shout is an image Hoesl returns to several times, so it must be important. Could these women be in training for a figurative proletariat army?

It’s hard to say exactly what is going on, but before long Fanni withdraws what seems to be an enormous amount of cash from a bank account that might or might not be her own, buys a tent and hiking boots and heads off on a trek through the Alpine mountains, where she promptly builds a campfire and burns the money. The abandonment and corrupting force of the material world seems to be the motivating force behind the film.

Eventually, Fanni arrives at a livestock farm, where she takes residence in a room far less grand than what she was accustomed to and is at home doing basic chores like shoveling manure. There is one graphic scene of butchering a cow that is enough to turn the most confirmed meat eater into a vegetarian.

At the farm, Fanni befriends Anna (Christina Reichsthaler), a younger version of herself who is fed up with the farm life and itching to see the world. Although Fanni appears quite content at the farm, when the police arrive and blow her cover -- speaking of fraud, forgery and other crimes -- she and Anna steal the farmer’s jeep and set off on the lam. Warriors fighting the system, or something like that.

Nothing is really explained, and the meaning of things is left more to the imagination. Striking visuals created by Hoesl and cinematographer Gerald Kerkletz and the attitudes of the characters are all that's really offered as clues. The film creates an overall mood and feeling that is opaque but palpable.

Case in point is an early scene, before Fanni leaves Vienna, in which she enters the Jeanne d’Arc cinema and watches a moment from Carl Theodore Dreyer’s classic silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, in which Joan accepts the price of her martyrdom. Sitting behind Fanni in the theater is Anna, whom she has not yet met, weeping as she watches. Hoesl obviously is drawing some parallel between Joan and his characters, hence the film’s title. Fanni and Anna presumably are martyrs standing against the degradation of modern life.

The presentation might verge on the precious and pretentious, but at least Hoesl and his collaborators are trying something bold as soldiers of cinema. Soldate Jeannette is certainly not for all tastes, but it is some kind of statement.

Production Company: European Film Conspiracy
Cast: Johanna Orsini-Rosenberg, Christina Reichsthaler, Josef Kleindienst, Bettina Köster, Aurelia Burckhardt, Julia Schranz, Ines Rössl
Director: Daniel Hoesl
Screenwriter: Daniel Hoesl
Executive producer: Katharina Posch
Producers: Daniel Hoesl, Gerald Kerkletz
Director of photography: Gerald Kerkletz
Production designer: Daniel Hoesl
Music: Bettina Köster
Costume designer: Alexander Goll
Editor: Natalie Schwager
Sales: Premium Films
No rating, 80 minutes