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Review: ‘Neither Heaven Nor Earth’ Engages the Horrors of War

THE NEW YORK TIMES August 4th, 2016 | By A. O. Scott

Capt. Antarès Bonassieu, the hero of Clément Cogitore’s debut feature, “Neither Heaven Nor Earth,” seems like a guy we’ve met before, at least in other war movies. Lean and muscular, with a thoughtful countenance under his blond brush cut, he is a seasoned soldier and a natural commander, tough on his men but capable of sensitivity when circumstances require it. (He is played by Jérémie Renier, a graceful chameleon who you may not recognize from Olivier Assayas’s “Summer Hours” or Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s “L’Enfant.”

The circumstances in which Captain Bonassieu and the French NATO troops under his command find themselves might also look familiar, at least at first. The war in Afghanistan, now in its 15th year, has spawned its own subgenre of platoon picture, one that encompasses both documentaries and fictional features. The basic elements are rough, ground-level realism; a sparsely-populated mountainous landscape; and a small group of Western soldiers dealing with a wary, sometimes hostile, population. Things are tense and tedious until a conflict erupts, precipitating heroism, atrocity or something more ambiguous.

For a while, “Neither Heaven Nor Earth” is clearly headed in that direction. There are misunderstandings with shepherds, awkward negotiations with village elders and an overall atmosphere of suspicion tinged with absurdity. Are the French soldiers protectors or occupiers? Their tactical objectives — involving dominion over rocks and scrubby trees — are nearly as murky as their larger strategic purpose, which they rarely talk about. The allegiances of their hosts are also unclear.

All this simmering unease reaches a crisis when Captain Bonassieu’s men start disappearing. Were they somehow taken by the Taliban? That appears to be the only plausible explanation until a Taliban commander shows up looking for his missing fighters. He and the captain are forced into an unlikely alliance by a common, invisible enemy.

I won’t say too much more, except to note that what Mr. Cogitore pulls off is less a plot twist than a genre switch, a feat he executes with impressive dexterity. He sticks to the visual and psychological conventions of war-movie naturalism in order to expose their limitations, and also to find metaphor, magic and metaphysical terror in the midst of grim realities.

On the most fundamental level, “Neither Heaven Nor Earth” is an impressive stunt, a horror movie masquerading as a film about the horrors of war. But its gravity and intelligence — the unassuming authority of Mr. Renier’s performance and the sly self-confidence of Mr. Cogitore’s direction — make it something more. It’s not just spooky; it’s genuinely haunting.

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