MUBI is spotlighting debutante French director Rachel Lang. On November 30 and December 1, respectively, we'll be exclusively showing her two short films, For You I Will Fight (2010), White Turnips Make It Hard to Sleep (2011), leading up to the exclusive online premiere of her feature debut, Baden Baden (2015), which runs December 2 - 31 2016 in the United States.
“The female thyme plant gets rid of half her chromosomes to host the male chromosomes.”
—Ana, White Turnips Make It Hard to Sleep
Women give generously, as illustrated by the reproductive system of an aromatic herb, hosting others who might not survive, would otherwise languish. The quote comes courtesy of Rachel Lang's second short film and is applicable to her nascent body of work, two shorts and one feature wherein: a young woman joins the army; another breaks up with her boyfriend; a third attempts to fix a bathtub. All are named Ana and struggle against their impulse to relinquish themselves. Indeed, Lang's characters are lancing the burden of men at least initially, as her cinema is diligently attuned to the rigors of young womanhood as well as a greater portrait of coming of age.
For You I Will fight (Pour toi je ferai bataille), her first short and a winner at Locarno International Film Festival, opens with a young woman in a nubby sweater smoking a cigarette, trying to warm herself in an apartment cluttered with books and furniture, but empty of warmth and other people. For a split second the scene brings to mind Chantal Akerman's Je, tu, il, elle, that is, before Lang’s protagonist joins the army, impelled by, we learn, a painful breakup and STI scare. Military duty gives the her a sense of purpose and a burgeoning sense of camaraderie that melts her solitude, as witnessed by the trace of shy smile that happens upon her face. First time actress Salomé Richard, who plays Ana and all her iterations, so to speak, is an apt proxy for the director who herself serves currently as an army officer in France. Autobiographical elements more than slip their way into her obviously personal films, and plotlines and characters, carry over from one piece to next.
Lang’s next short, White Turnips Make It Hard to Sleep (les navets blancs empêchent de dormer), is a movie about college or that brief period that follows, the salad days of youth where everything is honeyed and crisp and hopeful no matter how undetermined the future. It is with this in mind that Ana breaks up with her long distance boyfriend on what seems like a regularly scheduled trip to visit him in Brussels. She exercises succinct pragmatism in calling for the termination of the relationship with the lanky Boris, ultimately a passive evil, whose common insecurity keeps her a phone call and train ride's distance away. It is easy to see her as an older, wiser progression of the character in the first short with army training intact—she comes to the aid of a young woman, another fellow traveler caught in long distance romance, by schooling and swiftly shutting down the pimply army brats that hassle her on the train. Or perhaps she is a dream version, the aspirational version of Ana existent only in the confines of this twilight of coming of age, the pocket of in-between, between discovery and knowledge, knowing and wandering, not quite lost and not quite found, which all of Lang’s films so far occupy. Her first feature, Baden Baden, takes this concept and stretches it out, featuring a slim plot casually dispersed throughout equally important fragments of Ana's wandering; catching up with an old friend, babysitting for another, harvesting mirabelles with her mom. It is difficult the keep track of time in terms of days or weeks as Lang directs her films as a series of sketches of a young person’s summer, a portrait of tentative adulthood. The film might skip from an invitation to dinner directly to its aftermath, or from an impromptu road trip with acapella singers, endearingly cornball, to a hotel shower, eliding the more meaty or substantial scenes in order to show youth's drifting nature and emphasize its selective memory.
But if the abbreviated version of Ana was self-assured, Baden Baden’s is the opposite. Unsure, doubtful, and vulnerable. She is, however, refreshingly in embrace of her confusion that at this juncture in her life that marks more a digression than regression. In film's opening, a movie director or other high-level crewmember on the London movie set where Ana works abruptly and effectively lambastes her for her late arrival to the point of tears. The scene comes as a surprise for both the viewer and Ana, calmingly driving with hand at ten and two, head and shoulders framed by the car window. It hearkens back to one in Lang’s first short, where Richard’s character is scolded, albeit more politely, by a female doctor at a local health clinic for poor sexual hygiene. In both scenes Ana experiences a rude awakening resulting from an error of careless youth. Tardiness, lack of contraception. Glaringly foolish and ill-advised, but not derived from bad nature.
Another hasty decision: Ana drives the film set’s rental sports car to her hometown Strasbourg, arriving as if planned all along at her grandmother’s flat. Lang's compositions take on a tableaux like feel with Ana positioned amid book cases and art and other interior design art-objects as if she’s an extension of the scenery or room. After her grandmother takes a surgery-inducing fall, Ana happily assumes the burden of remodeling her shower into an appropriate elder-care type of bathtub, a task that makes up the film’s actionable plotline as well providing a wry sight gag of cast-iron destruction while dressed like Devo.
There’s an abundance of men: a close friend (primly appealing Swann Arlaud), an ex-boyfriend, a handyman who offers her help for free, and a tile-layer she pursues and offers to pay for his assistance and expertise. The ex (Olivier Chantreau) is a pretentious video artist who teases Ana for her unfamiliarity with Romantic poets, the type of person for whom, according to her, chores of physical exertion necessitate a metaphysical motivation—yet it is him she wants, though she knows she shouldn't. Just witness how her eyes narrow to a subtle wince and how her voice tenses and relaxes around Boris ever so slightly. To talk of Lang’s films one must also speak of Salomé Richard, who though a first timer is poised for break out. With close cropped garconne haircut but none of chic garb to match. Favoring denim cutoffs, an endless array of basic neutrals, and dirtied tennis shoes, Ana is constantly slumping, dangling her arms, or play fighting. Flippant and flighty, Richard exhibits tensile physicality, a taut smile. She is not unlike a continental Greta Gerwig, in a way, and to borrow the American actress's line in Frances Ha, Ana too is “not a real person yet.” But Richards lends a nuanced depth that saves her character from any navel gazing inclinations. Near Baden Baden’s end, after experiencing a setback, she raises her voice, the first time she really does so, encompassing all her uncertainty and covert anguish in but a few words. No small feat, this brief and spiky moment. Only time will tell what Richard and Lang do next.