Rachel Lang’s Baden Baden unfolds at such a remove from feeling and formalism that the film plays like it’s been methodically configured to snuff out an even marginal indulgence of its characters’ emotions. The film perceives the ambling activities of wayward twentysomethings as a prime cut worthy of cinematic sizzle via undistinguished minimalism. The trouble with the writer-director’s approach, whether favoring long shots or relying on a predictably gnomic structure for scenes and dialogue, is that little comes into focus by the film’s conclusion except for the fact that, well, life remains a distorted progression of stops and starts for those involved.
Lang does the film few favors by beginning in media res, as Ana (Salomé Richard), working for a film production company, hustles to chauffer an actress to the airport. That context isn’t immediately clear; it comes later, after Ana is ferociously chewed out by one of her asshole bosses, which prompts her to hate-drive the rental car all the way home to Strasbourg, where she ditches her temp position in order to help remodel her grandmother’s (Claude Gensac) bathroom. The potentially plucky premise is dulled by Lang’s refusal to pick up the pace; rather than mount a focused unspooling of Ana’s fears and hang-ups, Lang opts for meager comedic stakes that plant Ana beside Grégoire (Lazare Gousseau), an awkward confidant whose self-professed expertise includes non-collapsing toilet seats and bathroom tiling. The pair’s toil includes deadpan scenes of Grégoire trying not to stare at Ana’s ass as she bends over to check a drainage pipe and both donning hardhats and jumpsuits in order to be more fully equipped while on the job.
Lang’s camera placement tends toward stable, unresponsive takes that provide little support to either character construction or spatial orientation for the viewer, meaning that each scene feels like a repeat of the last, sans a recurring dream/fantasy sequence (it’s never clear precisely whose vision it is) that tracks Ana’s naked walk through a forest with Boris (Olivier Chantreau), her ex-boyfriend, in tow. The overt (and misplaced) biblical suggestions are subsequently complicated by an addition to the sequence that places Ana inside of a movie theater, with an unnamed film filling the enormous screen before her. Much like the remodeled bathroom and Ana’s own life goals, the fantasmatic interlude reinforces a work in progress, where a finality of significance has yet to be determined.
It’s hard to know what Baden Baden is after at times, especially in a late revelation that Ana is pregnant. When she expresses uncertainty about bringing the child to term, her physician responds: “Kids only start to be expensive when they turn 18. Before that, they cost nothing.” Rather than make sense of the doctor’s patently absurd assessment, whether through Ana’s response or an inventive intrusion, Lang cuts to Ana on the train ride home, gazing pensively through the window. It’s a small, but emblematic, instance of tonal discord, suggesting that Lang lacks a consistent grasp on the nature, and numerous suggestions, of her narrative.
The best thing about the film is its development of surrounding cultural meaning through mise-en-scène, most notably found as Ana and Boris chit-chat before a mural depicting an encounter between French colonialists and native peoples. Positioned directly between the two groups of people, Ana demurs as Boris steps out of frame to take a call. Staying with Ana, Lang’s camera finds a woman consumed by the frontal portion of her world—a relationship—so that a consideration of history, or historical precedent, never explicitly crosses her mind. That’s an astute suggestion given Boris’s plainly evident disregard for Ana’s vulnerability, albeit a slightly disconcerting one considering the paralleling of conqueror and victim that’s flatly made. Still, it’s one of few moments where Baden Baden wiggles free from the thudding shell of preconceived naturalism that it all too achingly ascribes to.