‘The Wakhan Front’ (‘Ni le ciel ni la terre’): Cannes Review

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
A cool concept and setting help elevate this otherwise underwhelming genre bender

Jeremie Renier (“Saint Laurent”) stars in writer-director Clement Cogitore’s feature debut

There are plenty of problems facing NATO forces today in Afghanistan, but dealing with paranormal activities isn’t one of them. At least that was the case until The Wakhan Front (Ni le ciel ni la terre), an intriguing if not exactly gripping mash-up of Lone Survivor, The Thing and The Blair Witch Project that pits a squad of French soldiers against a supernatural menace far deadlier than the Taliban.

Combining the mystical and the military in ways that can seem fresh compared to other recent war flicks, this feature debut from writer-director Clement Cogitore could nonetheless use some more adrenaline to make its premise work, even if the creepy desert setting and Hawksian man vs. nature scenario provide a worthy backdrop to the action. Additional fests and theatrical slots in Western Europe are where this Front will lie.

In a desolate eastern province bordering on Pakistan, French members of the NATO-led security forces spend their days in a raggedy metal fort, drinking beer, lifting weights and surveying the mountain passes with binoculars. Headed up by the hardworking and deadly serious Captain Bonassieu (Jeremie Renier), the grunts just seem to be biding their time, until things suddenly get both dangerous and extremely weird.

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After a scuffle with local villagers, two troops disappear while observing a mysterious nighttime ritual involving a sheep tethered to a hill. Bonassieu is convinced that neighboring insurgents are responsible, but it seems the Taliban have lost some men as well, and the warring factions call a truce so they can find out what’s happening. When a shell-shocked rookie (Kevin Azais) also vanishes, the soldiers start suspecting that something may be rotten in Wakhan – although that something has little to do with IEDs or Kalashnikovs and more with the twisted enigmas of Rod Serling.

As cool as that sounds, Cogitore’s screenplay (written in collaboration with Thomas Bidegain, A Prophet) doesn’t offer up the kind of white-knuckle suspense one expects here, while the characters never develop into distinctive enough personalities. There are a few strong directorial touches throughout, most notably in scenes utilizing night vision or thermal vision, with DP Sylvain Verdet (2 Autumns, 3 Winters) capturing the landscape in extreme long shots verging on abstraction – as if the soldiers had been confined to a surreal netherworld of rocks and stars.

Yet despite such isolated moments, as well as committed performances from Renier and the supporting cast, Front doesn’t provide enough underlying tension and never builds into a powerful genre allegory like The Thing (especially the 1982 John Carpenter version – clearly an inspiration here, all the way down to the missing dog). Cogitore seems to be saying meaningful things about man’s place in nature, and France’s place in Afghanistan, but his message is only partially received. He has a few good ideas and the right elements to set them off, but his bomb doesn’t fully detonate.

Production companies: Kazak Productions, Tarantula
Cast: Jeremie Renier, Kevin Azais, Swann Arlaud, Marc Robert, Finnegan Oldfield, Clement Bresson
Director: Clement Cogitore
Screenwriter: Clement Cogitore, in collaboration with Thomad Bidegain
Producer: Jean-Christophe Reymond
Director of photography: Sylvain Verdet
Production designer: Olivier Meidinge
Editor: Isabelle Manquillet
Composers: Eric Bentz, Francois-Eudes Chanfrault
Casting director: Tatiana Vialle
International sales: Indie Sales

No rating, 99 minutes