Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Whistler ’16: Le Cyclotron

It is like Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, but with more National Socialists. Life had never been as uncertain as it was at the climax of WWII, during the post-Heisenberg Principle, post-Schrödinger’s Cat era. For theoretical physicists engaged in espionage, the more they know, the scarier and less predictable the world looks. Quantum mechanics becomes a deadly game in Quebecois filmmaker Olivier Asselin’s The Cyclotron (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Whistler Film Festival.

The Franco-German Simone Ziegler was once a colleague of Emil Scherrer and very nearly his lover, but now she works for the resistance. She is to make contact with the physicist on a train bound for Paris to assess how close he is to realizing an atomic weapon—and most likely liquidate him based on his response. However, she unilaterally changes her mission parameters when she learns the rogue Scherrer wants to defect. He has indeed completed an atomic weapon—a cyclotron—but on a much smaller scale than the Manhattan Project’s A-bomb.

Unfortunately, the Gestapo has the drop on Scherrer and they are also pretty sure Ziegler’s cover story is bogus. The Germans will interrogate them both with the help of collaborating scientist Helmut König, but Scherrer is not talking and Ziegler says just enough to create a sense of uncertainty, so to speak.

Le Cyclotron easily represents the cleverest cinematic use of Schrödinger’s Cat since Ward Byrkit’s Coherence. It is hard to explain outside of the film, but it is completely convincing in the cinematic moment, which sounds aptly Heisenbergian. There are also wickedly smart nods towards relativity and time travel, yet it still functions as an effective espionage thriller, which happens to be primarily set on a train, for extra genre bonus points.

Mathieu Laverdière’s mostly black-and-white cinematography (with select passages rendered in color for effect) is strikingly stylish, in an appropriately noir kind of way. As a result, in terms of its tone and visual vocabulary, Cyclotron is more closely akin to films like Kawalerowicz’s Night Train and the rotoscoped Alois Nebel.

As Scherrer and Ziegler, Mark Antony Krupa and co-screenwriter Lucille Fluet do not look like typical blow-dried romantic co-leads, but that is rather refreshing. It also means they more convincingly pass for nuclear physicists. Most importantly, they forge some compellingly tragic, ambiguously romantic chemistry together.

Admittedly, Asselin has trouble with the ending, but it is always tricky to stick the dismount when a film has this degree of difficulty. Regardless, he earns enough credit for his ambition and inventiveness to compensate. Highly recommended for fans of film noir, science fiction, and post-modern cinema, Le Cyclotron screens this Saturday (12/3) and Sunday (12/4) as part of the Whistler Film Festival in British Columbia.