'The Stopover' ('Voir du Pays'): Cannes Review

Voir du Pays 4 - H 2016
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
Straight shooting but artfully done.

Ariane Labed ('Attenberg', 'The Lobster') and Soko ('Augustine", 'The Dancer') star as female soldiers trying to decompress after a tour of duty in Delphine and Muriel Coulin's follow-up to '17 Girls'.

French sister-act Delphine and Muriel Coulin drew mixed reactions in Cannes in 2011 for the debut feature 17 Girls, a stylish – perhaps too styled, for some – comedy-drama, set in the Coulins’ hometown Lorient in Brittany. That film concerns a coven of teenagers who decide to get pregnant at once, imagining that they might be able to create a kind of matriarchal hippie community to help raise their kids. It doesn’t pan out like that post-partum, but the film does explore the complex, and not always sisterly, bonds between women, and their struggle to assert power over their futures, or even over their own bodies.

All that’s germane to the Coulins’ gutsy, cut-above second feature, The Stopover (Voir du Pays), in which the female protagonists operate in an institution, the French army, that’s pretty much the opposite of a matriarchy even if, in strictly legal terms, it’s not the outright patriarchy it once was. Nominally, Aurore (Ariane Labed) and Marine (Soko) are supposed to be treated as equals by their fellow soldiers. However, while “decompressing” after battle in Afghanistan, it becomes clear some of the men harbor sexist, even misogynist feelings just below the surface, stirred up by post-traumatic stress that affects everyone in the unit. Tense as a climber’s rope as it descends incrementally to a disturbing climax, luminously lensed by Jean-Louis Vialard, and packed with piercing performances from the ensemble cast, this is a cracking good film. With a good wind at its back, it could perform honorably and hit targets as a niche item beyond France.

The opening shots reveal Aurore and Marine, friends since childhood, sitting on a transport plane bound for Cyprus from Kabul. With nearly everyone wearing identical blue sleeping masks, combat fatigues and battle-hardened thousand-yard stares (some of the actors are real former soldiers), it’s nearly impossible to distinguish the women from the men. In scene after scene, the framing emphasizes them as part of a band of…well, if not brothers, then siblings. Slowly the focus, both actual and on a narrative level, pulls in closer to the women.

Billeted at a five-star hotel in the Greek Cypriot coast for a few days as part of a mandatory program devised by army psychologists, the troop are to spend most of their time taking part of in a decompression exercise designed to help them work through some of the traumas they’ve experienced in combat, with aid of virtual-reality equipment that recreates the conditions described. It sounds like science fiction, but is apparently standard practice now in several standing armies. When off-duty, they can hit the buffet or booze it up on the beach with the regular tourists, a typical Euro-resort selection of drunken Brits, gluttonous Russians and sunburnt Germans.

Aurore is one of the first to give testimony about a particularly hellish ambush on a snowy Afghan road where several of their comrades were killed and Aurore herself was injured. Marine, on the other hand, like many of the male soldiers, is resistant to this talking cure. Short-tempered and prone to biting sarcasm, she’s clearly barely able to keep a lid on her simmering rage. Fanny (Ginger Roman), a field nurse and one of the few other women in the group, is somewhere in the middle of the stress spectrum, and would just like to have a bit of fun, and maybe drive around on roads where you don’t have to worry about land mines for a change.

When the three women end up cutting therapy to go sightseeing with a couple of Cypriot guys (Andreas Konstantinou and Makis Papadimitriou), it feels like a naughty release until a glimpse of a rifle in the trunk of the car suggests the locals might not be as innocuous as they seem. From here on out, the Coulins ratchet up the suspense, with a series of dramatic twists and reversals, all of it grounded in the fragile psychology of the characters who only a few days ago were in constant fear for their lives. That sort of strain leaves its scars, on both the men and the women. However, one of the most admirable things about the film is that while some end up behaving abominably, as with 17 Girls the filmmakers watch, even scrutinize, but never judge their characters.  

Having made good on the promise she displayed right from her debut in Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Attenberg and has built on in roles big (Love Island) and supporting (The Lobster) elsewhere, Labed is magnetic here, as is Soko, a less experienced actor although she has two films at Cannes this year (this and The Dancer). They have a very plausible, inarticulate chemistry together, suggesting a friendship so old and deep words are barely needed, but that doesn’t mean they can’t still hurt each other. They are soldiers, after all, and there’s a kind of aggression mixed into the friendship. In the latter half of the film, along with Roman’s Fanny, they exchange their camouflage duds for three nearly identical tank dresses that make them look like back-up singers in a band. The frocks are so close tonally to the colors the men are wearing, one wonders if they’re not army issue as well. But they also look strong, confident and fierce as hell. If only the final scenes weren’t so disturbing, the French army could almost use this as a marketing tool.

Production companies: An Archipel 35 coproduction with Blonde Audiovisual Productions, ARTE France Cinema
Cast: Ariane Labed, Soko, Ginger Roman, Karim Leklou, Andreas Konstantinou, Makis Papadimitriou, Alexis Manenti, Robin Barde, Sylvain Loreau, Jeremie Laheurte, Damien Bonnard, Jean-Yves Jouannais, Pierre Deverines
Directors/screenwriters: Delphine Coulin, Muriel Coulin, adapted from a book by Delphine Coulin
Producer: Denis Freyd
Co-producer: Fenia Cossovitsa
Director of photography: Jean-Louis Vialard
Costume designer: Isabelle Pannetier
Editor: Laurence Briaud
Casting: Leila Fournier, Sarah Teper
Sales: Films Distribution
No rating, 102 minutes