Thursday, March 17, 2016

ND/NF ’16: Neither Heaven Nor Earth

Nobody should be better prepared for the unexpected than a heavily armed company of soldiers, but the supernatural operate under different rules of engagement. When some unknown agency starts preying on a contingent of French troops deployed near the Pakistani border, it hits them at their weakest point—their need to understand and control any given situation. Denial will give way to metaphysical anxiety in Clément Cogitore’s Neither Heaven Nor Earth (formerly The Wakhan Front, trailer here), which screens during this year’s New Directors/New Films.

Like the soldiers of the Second Platoon documented in Sebastian Junger’s Restrepo and Korengal, the French soldiers doggedly fought to maintain their toe-hold in the remote mountainous region, only to learn they will soon be pulling out (presumably for political reasons). Yet, in the meantime, they must carry on usual, despite the absurdity of the circumstances.

Captain Antarès Bonassieu’s role is not to reason why. The hardened veteran is not the best at winning hearts and minds, but he keeps his men in peak battle condition. Similarly, he is not well equipped to deal with the mysterious disappearance of several men. What evidence there is suggests they were not abducted or assassinated. In each case, they just seemed to vanish into thin air. Following his initial instincts, he tries to shake some answers out of the local village he has long suspected of harboring insurgents. However, he will find himself forging an unlikely short-term truce with a highly suspicious warlord when they find they are both facing the same apparently paranormal crisis.

There is so much ambiguity in Neither, it is hard to definitively classify it as a horror movie, a psychological thriller, or even a war film. That kind of intentional vagueness can be too clever for a film’s own good, but in the case Cogitore’s screenplay (co-written with Thomas Bidegame), it is deeply disquieting. It is not the threat of death that unnerves Bonassieu’s men, it is uncertainty. In specific terms, nothing disturbs them more than the presumed dead body that remains unrecovered.

In some ways, Neither also acts as a corrective to our less than flattering image of the French military as the paratroopers who are constantly jumping into Algeria whenever its government does something to annoy Paris. Bonassieu and his men, like the PTSD-rattled Denis, might be have their flaws, but they are considerably more helpful in battle than an accordion on a duck hunt.

Dardenne Brothers regular Jérémie Renier is quietly intense as Bonassieu, falling apart rather spectacularly down the stretch. To a man, the ensembles sound and carry themselves like a military unit. However, it is the sense of place that really sets the film apart. The harsh mountain vistas are incredibly cinematic and the lonely eagle’s nest outposts (vividly recreated by the design team) heightens the feeling of vulnerability.

Although there is more left unresolved than duly explained in Neither, everything unfolds according to its grimly inevitable internal system of logic. It is an eerily effective film that successfully aims to unsettle viewers on a deeper level than mere jump scares. Highly recommended for fans of sophisticated genre films, Neither Heaven Nor Earth screens this Saturday (3/19) at the Walter Reade and Sunday (3/20) at MoMA, as part of the 2016 ND/NF.