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A playful reference to its protagonist’s curiously mundane
goal — to replace a bathtub in her grandmother’s bathroom with a shower — “Baden
Baden,” the title of Rachel Lang’s feature debut that world premiered in
Berlinale’s Forum, willfully misleads anyone thinking the film itself is in any
way connected with the famous German spa town.
Lang, who is somewhat reminiscent of Ana (played by Salomé
Richard), the character she created with her two short films, “For You I Will
Fight” and “White Turnips Make It Hard To Sleep” and returned to for one last
time with “Baden Baden,” has another profession besides directing films — she is
also an officer in the French army. Her films (the shorts have been awarded in
Locarno and Hamburg) are as interesting and full of opposites as their
director, and with her feature debut, it seems her filmmaking has become
additionally deft in effortlessly combining drama with comedy.
After deciding to steal the sports car she is driving to get
out of a stressful job, Ana returns to the European bordertown Strasbourg
where her grandmother lives. There, while impulsively deciding to renovate the
bathroom, she casually sleeps with her best friend Simon, gets entangled in a
toxic relationship with the artist Boris, is madly admired by the home
improvement store assistant Grégoire and intrigued by the secretive
construction worker Amar. It’s where “Baden Baden” really shines: In creating
an uncompromising, free-spirited and genuine portrait of a young woman,
untroubled by conventions and norms of sexuality and gender who — despite everything — still
feels like a rare find among cinematic heroines.
That doesn’t mean that “Baden Baden” is a political
project — far from it. The way Ana and her world are feels unlabored and
naturalistic; it seems that what Lang is truly invested in, besides the
coming-of-age story, is drawing humor from editing and composition, as well as
rejoicing in the colorfulness and playfulness of her own creation.
Indiewire talked to the director at the 66th Berlinale about the way her film reflects her generation and its existential
I began telling Ana’s story seven years ago. I
decided to make a trilogy about becoming an adult and a human being, but also
about the struggle to understand the relationship between passion and action: How to live your life actively, constructively, when in fact you are subject to
passions. We spend a summer with this character who is formed by the people she
meets. What we take out of it is a certain sensation and a feeling of a young
woman being drawn in dotted lines.
The transition to adulthood is one of the driving themes
of the film. I find it to be lasting longer and longer and happening
increasingly late in life, too. It’s complicated for our generation to find
a place in the world, to know who we are, why we are here and where we are
going. I think everyone is experiencing the same process. But for me, the
existential aspect of this is strongly connected to the political aspect. Our
generation has trouble projecting itself onto an old Europe where it is hard to
dream of a story we can create together.
My goal was to take every gender aspect out of my
character: I wanted to talk about something universal and not about a girl or a
boy. I wanted a “unisex” character, because I wanted Ana to be more than a
representation of a female category. I didn’t want her to be a fantasy or
an object of desire, I wanted her to become active, not depending on others’
gaze. I took out all the codes of female sexual attractiveness. For me, it was
a not so much a question of gender as it was about the metaphysics of things.
What does it mean to grow up, to have important encounters that build what you
are, to experience things that give you joy.
A naked human being is not sexualized. That only happens
when they are dressed, because there is a kind of staging going on. In most
films, or advertisements, to sexualize a body, you dress it up and dramatize
the idea of sexuality. The more naked you are, the less sexualized you are.
When you are naked, you’re closer to an animal, to the natural state of things.
I have been following [the French psych-punk rock band]
La Femme since their beginning and I had already used their song “Sur la
planche” in my 2011 short. Their music came at a right time, just as I was
thinking about the “unisex” quality of Ana’s character. I think it’s a song
for everyone, from 15 to 35. While writing “Baden Baden” I was listening to
their album, having a really big crush on their energy; the lyrics made me
smile. I like the humor, the discrepancy and the energy of their lyrics and
music, and it was a good fit for a joyful and powerful song I needed for Ana to
sing in the car, just before she gets arrested by the police because she’s
doing 250 km/h on the highway.
I am not much of a theorist; I rely on an aesthetic
instinct more than trying for a particular formal approach. I draw from what
has made me. My sister is an architect. When she was a student, we visited
a lot of buildings as a family. My father is a painter and a sculptor, so the
frame, composition, relationships, proportions, that’s him. He trained our eyes
to see form; he taught us how to look.
In a film script, we try to put things in their
designated places, to make them march forward to the beat of a drum, to create
a story that prevents the reader from becoming bored; yet in life, there are
slow moments as well as upbeat ones. The rhythm changes and I wanted that
to be apparent; I wanted to leave the building blocks of the film untreated, to
let only their sum total take us somewhere, sometimes with a punch in the face,
sometimes with an absence, a small nothing, something anecdotal, the
not-much-going-on mingled with the existential. It’s also a film about excess.
The contrast between a big splash of ketchup on a plate of peas and carrots and
a fragile life being built by a girl who can blow her nose into a friend’s
mouth — that interests me.
For the grandmother, it was hard to find an actress who
hasn’t had cosmetic surgery and looks her age, but doesn’t have Alzheimer’s.
Very hard. I was lucky enough to work with a super casting director, Kris
Portier de Bellair. We did everything possible including impromptu castings of
grandmothers in the streets of Paris. After that, she introduced me to Claude
Gensac and I could quickly see that she was very like the character herself:
she has a strong personality and was not at all cooperative. She found me
rather stubborn, too, so it was perfect—I told myself that the two of us were
going to butt heads and that’s exactly what happened. It was funny. She was the
grandmother for the job.
I have been in the army for two years for the first time
when I was nineteen. It was really strong experience, completely out of my
world. I met people there that I would never meet anywhere else, people who
couldn’t read or write. But still, something cohesive started to happen between
us, it was really stunning. We became brothers-in-arms. After that, I quit
France to attend a film school in Belgium. Three years ago, I decided to join
the army again, to become an officer, and experience the other side.
When you are a soldier, you have to obey, do what is
decided for you. You’re not yourself anymore, you are just a soldier like the
others, wearing the same uniform. It’s completely relaxing for the soul. You
become nothing more but an efficient body, you know what to do, there are no
more existential questions. But when you become an officer, the lowest rank
makes you responsible for thirty men. The officer school was really dizzying,
because you are trained for war, and you are responsible for the lives of your
thirty men. No more holidays for the soul: it makes your head spin. Army is a
micro-society that mixes people from very different social backgrounds. It’s a
really fascinating, and my next film is about the Foreign Legion, a special,
elite branch of the French army, only composed of men who come from all over
When I was nineteen, Spinoza gave me an electroshock, and
it is still the most important thing from me when making films. I want the
audience to stop being passive, to try to understand the relationship between
things, the underlying mechanisms, the sad passions that hurt Ana. That means
entering an active whirlwind, understanding the good and the bad, understanding
what gives you the power to act.