Rachel Lang’s Baden Baden is a simple story of an aimless woman returning to her hometown and building a new shower stall for her grandmother. Not much else happens in terms of traditional plot, yet this arthouse oddity is an impossibly fragile and emotionally robust drama about identity, positioned on a razor’s edge between comedy and melodrama. Baden Baden performs the rare trick of being simultaneously translucent, open, closed and opaque. It begins with a bold five-minute head-and-shoulders shot in the interior of a car, where Ana (Salomé Richard) is observed driving around in circles.
We hear the voice of a woman in the background, but for the first few minutes all that’s shown is Ana’s face; confused and agitated. She’s chauffeuring an actress to a Belgian film set but she’s lost, both literally and figuratively. Despite the unsettling intimacy of Lang’s portrait of millennial malaise, sparse use is made of facial close-ups. After this claustrophobic opening the film expands into an image-based character study that drifts from episode to episode with narrative often verging on the inconsequential. Instead of heading back to her flat in London, Ana decides to visit her hometown of Strasbourg to spend time with her friend Simon (Swann Arlaud), ex-boyfriend Boris (Olivier Chantreau), and grandmother (Claude Gensac) who, after a fall, finds herself in hospital.
While her grandmother’s indisposed, Ana decides to redo her bathroom, enlisting bemused DIY store assistant Grégoire (Lazare Gousseau) to help her. Throughout these interactions dialogue is sparse and unrevealing, with Lang opting for an eclectic blend of realism, deadpan humour and a gentle sprinkling of surrealism to articulate Ana’s thoughts and feelings. Each scene is seemingly constructed in isolation, designed to serve up a tiny sample of Ana’s fractured identity, yet the lack of connective tissue between these episodes only yields further questions: Why does Ana keep returning to her ex, Boris? Who is the young tradesman she keeps pestering? And why won’t she return to London? Viewers may be disappointed that concrete answers aren’t forthcoming, but the film’s destination is ultimately irrelevant; the battle raging within Ana is of greater interest.
Richard is more than adept at expressing the chaos that consumes her character. Rigorous in its honesty and unimpeded by even a scrap of vanity, Richard’s dynamic performance holds this loosely woven film together. It’s a performance marked by an understated intensity and innocence necessary to portray such a thoughtful, sad, and surprisingly defiant woman. She’s barely off screen and nearly always clad in vest and shorts. Ana’s androgynous appearance further highlights her internal crisis, whilst also making her plight more universal. Ana’s is a life positioned between adulthood and adolescence, male and female, muse and creator. This series of binary conflicts is also reflected by setting. Situated on the border of France and Germany, Strasbourg is a city that has changed identity many times over the years and the Rhine plays a major role here, providing the backdrop to many scenes concerning Ana’s destructive relationship with Boris.
It’s difficult to fall in love with Baden Baden. The manner in which it unfurls is rigid and functional, yet there’s an alluring beauty to its crisp visuals. With so many narrative ellipses, it’s paramount the film’s style carry the burden of narrative. Thankfully Belgian cinematographer Fiona Braillon’s fixed, naturalistic imagery captures the world that has imprisoned Ana, effortlessly depicting the unspoken chaos of her life and creating a palette that’s at once indistinct and bursting with energy. Littered with keen observations about modern life and gentle moments of dark humour, this tale of how we live now masks a tender exploration of the human body as the last refuge in a world of binary oppression.
Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble