'Sophia Antipolis': Film Review

Shellac
A compelling exploration of a hidden and haunting part of France.

The latest feature from writer-director Virgil Vernier ('Mercuriales') premiered in Locarno’s Filmmakers of the Present competition.

Forty-two-year-old French filmmaker Virgil Vernier has built up a unique and rather fascinating body of work over the last decade, with several shorts and a handful of features that skirt the line between documentary, fiction, museum pieces and ethnographic studies of places with highly specific functions: the hometown of Joan of Arc in Orleans; a police precinct in Commissariat; the entrance to a nightclub in Pandore; and a diverse industrial banlieue on the edge of Paris in Mercuriales.

His latest effort, Sophia Antipolis, is yet another plunge into a particular French location. The titular municipality, nestled in the hills between Cannes and Nice, is defined by Wikipedia as a “European technology park” and houses the offices, as well as the employees, of computing, biotechnology and other state-of-the-art industries. Filled with gated homes and clustered steel-and-glass laboratories patrolled by a 24-hour security force, it’s like a Cote d’Azur version of Mike Davis’ Los Angeles in City of Quartz — a place that seems to rebuff humans at all levels, yet remains inhabited.

In Vernier’s film, Sophie Antipolis becomes the setting for an array of loosely connected stories —  a sort of minimalist Gallic Short Cuts — revealing different aspects of the city, if you can even call the place a city: there’s the plastic surgery clinic where a young woman goes for breast enlargement; the nondescript motel where a guru-like hypnotist spreads his gospel; the guards who ride around at night in an SUV, shining their flashlights into the wilderness; and the gang of neo-fascist neighborhood watchmen and watchwomen trying to keep their streets safe, although the question remains: from what, exactly?

The director, who wrote the script in collaboration with Mariette Desert (Suzanne), attempts to link these disparate happenings together through the story of a girl who was brutally murdered and then burned beyond recognition in a garage. But in reality, the mysterious dead body functions more like an exquisite corpse (per the Surrealist invention), leading us from one character to another as Vernier paints the portrait of a place filled with weirdness, ennui and an underlying sense of dread.

There’s a Lynchian quality to the anaesthetized and haunting atmosphere that the filmmaker — working with cinematographers Simon Roca and Tom Harari — creates in each stand-alone sequence, and the tone grows increasingly menacing in latter scenes depicting the violence Sophia Antipolis’ denizens are capable of, if not driven to commit by their hyper-capitalistic environment. Yet the film is far from a thriller, with a detached sense of drama that at times recalls late-period Robert Bresson. The performances, especially, can be both naturalistic and a bit flat in places, with a cast of nonprofessionals mostly playing themselves and further enhancing the documentary side of the narrative.

Such a style may make the movie a tough sell for mainstream art house audiences, although festivals have been steadily programing Sophia Antipolis since its Locarno premiere this past summer. Ambitious distributors, however, should definitely give this and the rest of Vernier’s oeuvre a look, as he’s become one of the more intriguing auteurs to arise out of France in recent years, exploring the hidden, unsettling depths of a country in quiet turmoil.

Production companies: Kazak Productions, M141
Cast: Dewi Kunetz, Hughes Njiba-Mukuna, Sandra Poitoux, Bruck, Lilith Grasmug
Director: Virgil Vernier
Screenwriters: Virgil Vernier, with the participation of Mariette Desert
Producer: Jean-Christophe Reymond
Directors of photography: Simon Roca, Tom Harari
Production designer: Florent Catusse
Costume designer: Pauline Croce
Editor: Charlotte Cherici
Sales: MK2

In French, 98 minutes