Film

Rachel Lang’s ‘Baden Baden’ Offers a Beautifully Aimless Study of Near-Adulthood

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This vigorously inventive French import shows up America’s young-folks-kinda-maybe-starting-to-get-it-together comedies as the prefab product they are. Writer-director Rachel Lang, in her feature debut, strips away all formula and falseness from this story of a vibrantly aimless young Frenchwoman’s bumbling twenties, never promising us that a love connection or professional breakthrough is going to give her life a shape that society might feel good about. Instead, this is a prickly examination of wandering and wondering, of taking on projects and lovers unlikely to work out, of feeling your way toward a place in a world that’s not inclined to make any room for you. And it’s about fucking up, of course, as all kinda-maybe-starting-to-get-it-together comedies must be, but never in a farcical set-piece way. Lang is uncommonly assured for a first-time director, capturing her scenes in fluid master takes, rarely cutting from one character to the next, letting things unfold at the pace of in-the-moment human feeling.

The knockout opening finds Ana (Salomé Richard) driving a car, in a low-key panic, with an unidentified passenger nattering on in the backseat. As she motors along, and the long take proceeds, we study Ana’s face in profile and slowly work out the situation: She’s working as a driver on a film set, and she’s not very good at it. This becomes clear once she at last arrives at her destination, and is immediately — in this same, exquisitely staged shot — upbraided by a bearded superior. The crew is now 45 minutes behind, she is told, and all Ana can say is that she got lost. His words lash at her, and she’s mortified, but something unyielding in her expression — and in Lang’s controlled technique — suggests the real truth. Even now, when the worst has happened, Ana doesn’t care that much. In fact, once her work on the film set is finished, Ana doesn’t bother with completing her job’s final task: returning the rental car, a Porsche. She drives it home instead.

From there, the quiet chaos of her life wheels along. A trio of boys evince varying levels of romantic interest in her, but her sights are set on the most aloof and successful, the one who won’t wear a condom; her grandmother suffers a fall, and Ana visits her in the hospital and at physical therapy; Ana assigns herself the duty of refurbishing that grandmother’s bathtub; Ana chats with friends, breaks bad news to her mother, babysits, drives too fast in her Porsche. The looseness of plotting juxtaposes in fascinating ways with Lang’s rigorous staging and framing. Ana is amused and annoyed, sometimes listless and sometimes briefly, impulsively impassioned. The film suggests actual listless years of near adulthood, where each day’s shape and emphasis is a surprise, where you can’t tell which dumb things you do are the ones that might matter later. Her worst days and best days aren’t easily distinguished. Each moment, no matter how breezy or apparently inconsequential, is fixed as precisely in the whole as a tile in a mosaic, the form as pleasing as the content, each piece a marvelous little nothing but also the key to the whole.

Baden Baden

Written and directed by Rachel Lang

Mubi

Opens November 25, Anthology Film Archives