Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Mar 06, 2019 2:15 am 
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Improvisational anomie

About Vergil Vernier's debut featureMercuriales I was harsh: "Virgil Vernier works with interesting documentary elements and exceptional access to intimate situations to put together a sketchy fiction that ultimately does not cohere," I wrote in my 2015 New Directors/New Films series review. Vernier's sophomore film, Sophia Antipolis, presented within the March 2019 Rendez-Vous with French Cinema schedule and introduced as a Film Comment selects film by that FSLC publication's editor, is a chance for a reassessment. And it shows Vernier still intent in his use of non actors and evocation of urban anomie. He still deserves to be considered promising. Vernier has widened his scope and strengthened his thrust, which is to use his vignettes collectively to scare us, suggesting a world with hints of the occult and the apocalyptic around its edges.

But from the first Vernier is up to his previously demonstrated fascination with young women. Of Mercuriales I wrote, " Vernier's male fascination with nubile female bodies, even a young girl's, verges on the voyeuristic and exploitative." Sophia Antipolis starts right off with young women stripping to show their breasts, pleading with an unseen cosmetic surgeon to operate quickly enlarge their already perfectly nice looking poitrines. One of these girls, named Sophia after the town, is only sixteen, and has faked her ID to appear eighteen and therefore have the right to decide on such surgery without parental consent. This is putatively the girl who will stop turning up for her best girlfriend at school and start hanging out with rough crowd, then become a little too wild even for them, then turn up as a charred body.

This time Vernier's film is dominated by the haunting mystery of a girl's charred body found in a building in the eponymous Sophia Antipolis, a garish, giant urban mall that's become a kind of Silicon Valley outpost in the middle of the French Riviera. Such a setting, familiar to the filmmaker from an early age and meant by him to represent a place more ideal or nightmarish than real, well suits his taste for alienation.

Around the image of the charred body other vignettes hover with an uneasy blandness. There is a Vietnamese woman whose older French husband has died, and who's tempted at her door, Seventh Day Adventist-style, into attending the meeting of a "spiritual" group. Vernier likes to use real-life stuff: here, the group leader - its members insist it's not a cult - demonstrates the existence in the world of inexplicable mysteries by transforming a hypnotized man's body into a rigid board you can sit on, stretched between two chairs.

Things relax temporarily as two of the women at the meeting have a nice day together, going on a walk, having ice cream, and admiring the sea. Then we join two black men with Arabic names. One is a newcomer in the area, who served four years as a sailor. He now follows around the other, a tall, goateed devotee of Spirulina, and is apparently induced by him to join a vigilante group and attend a training session in Israeli Krav Maga fighting methods that look pretty violent. This group brings to mind the right wing militants the smartest student secretly trains with in Laurent Cantet's The Workshop (Rendez-Vous 2018), which, however, seemed more fully realized. (A Film Comment article refers to the vigilantes as "a right-wing paramilitary outfit.") Whatever they are, when they kidnap a man they suspect of pedophilia, the newcomer has second thoughts and flees on foot from the scene. Maybe this all coheres better this time, and the Super16 cinematography remains to intensify the bright colors in the Riviera sunlight. But for me, it still didn't quite add up.

Sophia Antipolis, 98 mins., debuted at Locarno, where it was nominated for a Golden Leopard; presented also in three other festivals, including Rotterdam. French theatrical release 31 Oct. 2018. Only 13 reviews listed on AlloCiné but favorable, with 3.7 press rating. Screened for this review as part of the UniFrance-Film Society of Lincoln Center Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, Mar. 2019.

Rendez-Vous showtimes
Tuesday, March 5, 4:00pm
Sunday, March 10, 5:30pm

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