SCREEN May 17, 2015 | By Jonathan Romney
You’ve never seen a war film quite like The Wakhan Front. A strange mixture of the military, the metaphysical and the downright mysterious, this debut feature by French director Clément Cogitore has a highly suggestive philosophical agenda, but at the same time functions as a gripping, subtly eerie drama which keeps you guessing even while it maintains its supernatural (or theological) undertow simmering beneath the surface.
With a strong lead from Jérémie Renier, the film’s commercial prospects may be mitigated by Cogitore’s refusal of a conventionally satisfying narrative payoff. Then there’s the fact that the film is uncategorisable in standard terms - anyone expecting this Afghanistan-set drama to remotely resemble, say, The Hurt Locker is in for a surprise. But carefully handled by distributors, this could find a crossover following between the upmarket and the cult.
The setting is a desolate, rocky region in Wakhan Province in Afghanistan in 2014, near the Pakistan border (the film was actually shot in Morocco). A detachment of French troops, headed by Captain Antarès Bonassieu (Renier), is patrolling a valley inhabited by a village of shepherds and frequented by local Taliban. At the start, local relations are tense but under firm control, and the level-headed, competent Bonassieu seems to be running things smoothly. Then the inexplicable happens: two French soldiers disappear without trace. Then there are further disappearances, among the Taliban too, and no-one can account for what’s going on in this landlocked Bermuda Triangle.
As matters escape Bonassieu’s control and understanding, the officer’s psyche begins to frazzle. Cogitore - writing with sometime Jacques Audiard collaborator and Cowboysdirector Thomas Bidegain - musters an eerie mood that gradually erodes the prevalent masculine rationalism to suggest the encroachment of unearthly forces.
The use of military tech visuals - including heat-sensitive imaging and night vision - is in striking contrast to the increasing strangeness that creeps in, creating a mood akin to the elusive creepiness of, say, The Blair Witch Project. But rather than merely providing chills, Cogitore has more philosophical themes in mind, and the story’s upshot is that humanity’s constant warring has finally prompted the natural (or divine) order of things to take an apocalyptic turn.
A distinctive score takes in grinding techno and classical pieces on the viola da gamba, and the theme of visibility and invisibility is brilliantly played out throughout in visuals that show the khaki-clad men constantly disapppearing into (or suddenly surging from) a singularly inhospitable, colourless landscape.
VARIETY May 17, 2015 | By Guy Lodge
Clement Cogitore's striking debut puts an inventive fresh, uncanny spin on the War in Afghanistan soldier study.
For a still-young subgenre, it can feel as if the narrative possibilities of the War in Afghanistan soldier study are approaching exhaustion — until a film like Clement Cogitore’s clever, curiosity-stoking “The Wakhan Front” points out the pockets of uncanny experience that lie within it still. A portrait of tense front-line routine in which the most urgent threat to troops’ survival takes a distinctly metaphysical form, this brooding broadcast from the Twilight War Zone stars the steadfast Jeremie Renier as a committed French army captain whose authority gradually deserts him when his men begin unaccountably disappearing. Though its disquieting premise never quite combusts into a full-scale psychological thriller, Cogitore’s accomplished, arresting debut should reverberate widely on the festival circuit; select distributors may proceed with caution.
Introducing the film at its Cannes Critics’ Week premiere, its writer-director described it wryly as “John Ford meets M. Night Shyamalan” — as if to pre-empt any such comparisons, flattering or otherwise, from the critical contingent. At a more highbrow level, Cogitore might have invoked Michelangelo Antonioni’s “L’avventura,” a dissimilar investigation of disappearance with which his film nonetheless shares comparable concerns about the presence of absence, and the insecurities that those left behind project into the uncertain void.
“Benedictions are for the dead,” Renier’s Captain Antares Bonassieu gruffly counsels one of his disconsolate grunts. “What you need is sangfroid — that’s what gets you home in one piece.” Bonassieu seems to have more than enough of that for all his men, though it still doesn’t prevent the strange occurrences that send shockwaves of discontent through his squad, hitherto sleepily stationed on the eponymous corridor near the Pakistani border. (“The Wakhan Front,” incidentally, seems an insufficiently suggestive title for a war film with such abstract themes; distributors may prefer an approximation of the pic’s French title, “Ni le ciel, ni la terre,” which translates as “Neither Heaven Nor Earth.”)
With NATO-led troops in the process of withdrawing from Afghanistan, Bonassieu’s men have little to do with their days but wait matters out until their own departure: Establishing sequences effectively convey the day-to-day grind of life in this oppressively male domestic unit, where pumping iron and recycling banter are all that pass for leisure. (After a dominant run of U.S. films about Middle Eastern combat, it’s gratifying to see other sides of the foreign military experience on screen: “The Wakhan Front” is as vividly unifying a depiction as Britain’s “Kajaki” last year.)
The troops’ unchallenging military duties principally involve surveillance of the local sheep-farming villagers, whose resistance to the forces has been worn down to impatient tetchiness. A native ritual involving the tethering of sheep to a lone stake planted in the valley arouses suspicion from Bonassieu, however. He senses that it may be a way of communicating with concealed Taliban insurgents, and points the blame in their direction when two of his soldiers fail to return from a night-watch shift.
It emerges, however, that the Taliban have been mysteriously losing men of their own in the same valley. The rival factions resolve to lay down their arms for a joint investigation, though they make little headway. Bonassieu’s sangfroid, meanwhile, gradually drains from his system: As other soldiers vanish, including naive expectant father William (Kevin Azais), he begins to fixate on what he believes are cryptically coded dreams, while maintaining his skepticism as others turn to their faith for clarity and comfort.
Cogitore and co-writer Thomas Bidegain (a regular Jacques Audiard collaborator) are less interested in the phenomenon — earthly or otherwise — behind the disappearances than in the belief systems either agitated or fabricated in their wake. That may disappoint auds seeking a headier tilt into the supernatural, though “The Wakhan Front” remains edgily unnerving even as character drama. The ensemble commits to the premise with utmost gravity and conviction, enabling our belief in even the most improbable interpretations of its core enigma. Maintaining his sympathetic sturdiness even as his force of control weakens, Renier gives a textured human face to the film’s most esoteric ideas.
Tech contributions are uniformly outstanding, with d.p. Sylvain Verdet’s glacially composed long shots often losing the actors in the landscape’s rye-coloured expanses of dust, rock and ruin — it’s certainly an environment conducive to vanishing by any means. Cogitore will occasionally disrupt the taupe consistency of the scenery with more brashly lyrical imagery: A rippling gold-foil camouflage cape serves both a critical narrative function and a visually poetic one. Sparse, specific sound design keeps nerves on high alert, as does Eric Bentz’s score, with its alternation of ethnic and electronic elements. One abrupt dance sequence, set to an aggressive techno track, seems a direct homage to Claire Denis’s “Beau Travail” — still the gold standard for studies of soldiers lost (even when found) in the desert, though “The Wakhan Front” is a worthy admirer.
CINEUROPA May 16, 2015 | By Fabien Lemercier
CANNES 2015: Clément Cogitore's first feature film is an astonishing and highly original piece of young French cinema about a platoon of soldiers in Afghanistan.
"Southern Post to Northern Post", "civilian in sight", warnings, patrols, long periods of waiting around, sudden exchanges of fire which pierce the silence that quickly settles in again afterwards: Clément Cogitore ventures into military territory with his first feature film, The Wakhan Front [+], which is being screened in competition in Critics' Week at the 68th Cannes Film Festival. A subject which has been touched on very little in French film, here the army is portrayed in a way which is all the more original for the fact that the storyline plays out in Afghanistan, centering around the inexplicable disappearance of soliders in an environment characterised by rocky ground, heat and isolation. The setting is reconstructed realistically and cleverly by the director, known for his talent as a visual artist, who clearly knows how to create atmosphere and works on the border between genres (war/fantasy; thriller/action) and areas of interest (realism/mysticism).
"Blessings are for the dead! You need a cool head if you want to return home in one piece." Captain Antarès Bonnassieu (played by the intense Jérémie Renier) firmly leads his platoon on a surveillance mission into a valley in the middle of the Afghan mountains, not far from the border with Pakistan. With the exception of minor skirmishes with the Taliban and diplomatic/stormy neighbourly relations with the local villagers, all goes to plan. From blockhouses, the soldiers observe their surroundings, on the lookout for the unexpected day and night, exchanging stories over the radio or at their camp of their memories of Kabul, of the bodies of soldiers that were blown into a thousand pieces and then sent home in sealed coffins filled with earth. But this routine comes to an abrupt halt with the inexplicable disappearance of two soliders who seem to have vanished into thin air. After holding a fruitless inquiry fraught with accusations and threats (from his own soldiers and then the villagers), and increasing security measures, another disappearance moves Antarès to take action and enter into talks with the Taliban rebels, as they are also looking for men who seem to have fallen off the face of the Earth. What's going on in this place? Why are the men having the same disturbing dreams about the disappeared men being in a cave somewhere? Antarès tries to find rational explanations to it all whilst fears that metaphysical forces are at work mount...
Filmed using a shoulder-mounted camera, The Wakhan Front paints a highly realistic portrait of daily life in the army and perfectly uses the scale of its natural setting and technology such as thermal imaging and infra-red sight to thrust the viewer (in an elegantly unique way) into the shoes of the soldiers. With a rhythm not unlike that of The Desert of the Tartars, the director skilfully creates a threatening atmosphere for a group of men (solidly portrayed, most notably by Kevin Azaïs and Sâm Mirhosseini) straying dangerously close to the edge of the abyss as if suffering from dizziness, torn between beliefs and worlds (western and eastern) that are just too different. Built on the principle of "the less you say the better", the film (the storyline for which was written by Clément Cogitore with the collaboration of Thomas Bidegain) showcases a filmmaker who, despite unfortunately going astray during the home straight of the film with an excess of mysticism and metaphors, is not afraid of being bold.
Produced by Kazak Productions and co-produced by Belgian production companyTarantula, The Wakhan Front will be distributed in French theatres by Diaphana, and international sales will be taken care of by Indie Sales.
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