If “Domain,” the first feature of Viennese director Patric Chiha, were boiled down to pure formula, it would go something like this: Imagine “Harold and Maude” directed by Eric Rohmer with shades of film noir and doused in philosophical chatter enhanced by ample white wine. But “Domain” isn’t pure formula, because the subversion of expectations is its centerpiece.
More specifically, “Domain” centers on Pierre (Isaie Sultan), a shy teen smitten with his passionate, technically brilliant aunt Nadia (Béatrice Dalle). Nadia’s good looks and romantic anecdotes constantly enliven Pierre, blinding him to her drinking problems. As his blossoming homosexuality opens him up to new experiences, Pierre turns to Nadia for guidance through his ever-expanding worldview, leading to an uncomfortably close relationship that reveals Nadia’s allure as little more than a defense mechanism. “Without mathematics, I’d be liquid without a container,” she tells him. Over the course of their time together, that container bursts wide open.
Driven by Dalle’s fierce, quasi-monstrous performance and Sultan’s impressionable reactions to it, “Domain” is mainly comprised of long walks, boozy dinners and weighty conversations. It rarely feels cold, but by assuming Pierre’s perspective with a succession of moods in place of straightforward exposition, the narrative momentum borders on experimental.
With the exception of a few tangents, Pierre’s meetings with Nadia don’t just form the bulk of the story; they define it, as do the ever-changing moods associated with their unlikely bond. At a concert, the pair dances in slow motion against a black backdrop, underscoring the theatrical minimalism of the scenario and the liveliness the actors bring to it. Before “Domain” becomes tragic, it’s downright sexy.
Chiha punctuates these encounters with a constant reminder of the passing days superimposed over images of a muddy stream, symbolically marking the steady descent into darker thematic waters. Nadia’s constant fixation on discussing the world’s inherently destructive nature — from which she draws on both her scientific training and tales of former lovers — makes her the most alluring “chao-tician” since Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm in “Jurassic Park.”
Drawn to complexities he can’t understand, Pierre eschews his peers, balking when he gets strange looks for ordering white wine at a bar with some schoolmates. “Isn’t that for old people?” he’s asked. But it’s Nadia’s whining, not the wine, that eventually leads Pierre to understand her flaws. “Her originality is an illusion,” his mother says.
She’s half-right: There’s nothing false about Nadia’s drinking problem. The brilliance of “Domain” comes from the way it evokes Pierre’s evolving worldview with passing glances rather than the conversations dominating much of its running time. For everything they talk about, a solution to Nadia’s addiction never comes up. “Words are disorder,” she tells her nephew and “Domain” proves it. Pierre has to look beyond his aunt’s surface appeal–no easy task–to comprehend her flaws. Once he does, there’s no turning back. “You’ve changed so much,” he tells her late in the game. Of course, he’s really talking about himself.
Criticwire grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Opening at the IFC Center this Friday, “Domaine” is unlikely to attract vast audiences since it lacks a plot easy to describe on paper. However, having played at both U.S. and European festivals large and small, it should pave the way for plenty of interest in Chiha’s next feature.