An easy bet to win is to wager that the first reel is any given movie is more interesting than its remaining minutes. This is because the field is open: the story frequently has yet to settle, the plot to develop, or the formal and aesthetic approach to be determined. The possibilities, for the audience, are seemingly endless: Where will this film go, what will it do, what shall I see and how shall I see it? As more minutes pass, the probabilities shrink, more things become less likely to happen; we begin to detect patterns, conventions, likelihoods. One sees boundaries around the imagination, and what can and can’t happen becomes palpable. Suddenly, without really being able to pinpoint when the transition occurs, something full of promise becomes a picture like any other—and possibly worse. Rarer are the films that through a kind of narrative permeability or the freedom of psychedelia approach their storytelling throughout with this kind of open-endedness; think, for the former, of Jacques Rivette, and for the latter, of Alejandro Jodorowsky.
Valérie Donzelli’s Notre Dame exemplifies this dilemma perfectly. Its first ten or so minutes are a giddy whirlwind of character and story exposition, frantic activity, and comic mischief: The anxieties of Our Times! A single mother (Donzelli herself)! Two kids! Their sad sack father! A shower in the bathroom! Flash floods! An architecture career on the rocks! Paris beset by random slapping incidents! A competition to remodel Notre Dame! Accidentally winning the competition! What now?! Here is a true screwball joie de vivre missing from 99.9% of comedies and so-called rom-coms. That the rest of the film, while appropriately ludicrously plotted, fails to keep up this pacing, this density, and this delight is not a surprise, as the effort and inspiration that would entail might exhaust a filmmaker to death, but the bubbly concoction that follows is hardly the worst path to have chosen.
Another great first reel that in fact continues to keep us on our toes can be found in the family drama A Voluntary Year. Since Ulrich Köhler’s sly, stripped-down post-apocalyptic In My Room, the German director’s first in seven years, only just premiered last year it is a surprise to see him with this new film in competition in Locarno. Co-written and co-directed by Henner Winckler and shot in a small town in rural Germany, A Voluntary Year has the slender production scale and low stakes of a feature for television or a film quickly made between larger things, yet its modest definition allows the filmmakers to attack their story with a tenacious precision, giving what is essentially a father-daughter two-hander the efficient energy and detailed insight of a genre film.
Like many lean films, the first act is the best, as the film’s center has yet to be defined and instead we are thrust in media res into a banal situation—the town’s doctor, Urs (Sebastian Rudolph), driving his teenage daughter Jette (Maj-Britt Klenke) somewhere she’ll need a suitcase and backpack—that unobtrusively gathers tension and anxiety. She’s going abroad, we quickly learn, and has a complicated relationship with a pestering boyfriend her father disapproves of. Their trip to the airport gets sidetracked when stopping to pick something up at Urs’s brother’s home, an errand that escalates when he doesn’t answer his phone or doorbell and Urs’s irritation spills into panicking concern over his brother’s health. As he first forces his way through a neighbor’s flat in order to climb onto the adjacent balcony, and next tries to drill into and bust down the front door, the boyfriend arrives on motorbike and starts arguing with Jette out of earshot, and we frantically juggle two situations of indeterminate stakes at once.
The boyfriend ends up driving Jette to the airport, only for her, flushed with love and fraught with nervousness over her trip, to get him to drive them both away, missing her flight and now transforming the film suddenly, momentarily, into a lovers on the run story. This is all the first act, and inevitably the freedom spontaneously embraced by the teens gets caught up in the worry of Urs, whose heavy-handed approach to family we’ve already seen. The couple splits, Jette returns home, yet nothing is settled between her and her father, nor with her and what she indeterminately yearns for. Some things are spelled out a bit too much—Urs’s contempt for his small town and his affair with an employee giving obvious motivation for his helicopter parenting as well his daughter’s increasing rejection of his attention—but it hardly matters when the story is so well-founded in unexpectedly articulated narrative turns, great nuance from the actors, and direction that feels at once unobtrusive and exacting. Even if it hardly seems the kind of film that would be positioned in the competition of a major international film festival, it is here, rooted in modestly, human observation, and the verve of a tightly envisioned scenario, that A Voluntary Year proves itself surprisingly worthy.
Another stellar first reel is a sequence of scenes of restrained fear and ambiguous circumstances: a public bus is pulled over at a military roadblock in the hills, but the armed men wearing rob the passengers and flee. The driver reports this to a murky, clandestine office of journalists, who seem strangely at odds about reporting on the recent spate of impersonations and terror. A doctor has to be frisked at a police checkpoint in order to reach his hospital. There, he examines a female patient, whose serious diagnosis she dismisses and instead laments the disappearance of her husband, and the violent threats for her to stay silent. After work, the doctor slumps in an alley relentlessly swept by street cleaners to little effect and admits total exhaustion.
In the kind of coincidence that’s only curious to those eyes-deep into film festival immersion, here is another film about a small-town doctor premiering in Locarno’s competition, Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche’s excellent Terminal Sud. It is genre-inflected as well, but that’s hardly a superficial point: So much of festival cinema falls either on the side of narrative minimalism, implacably moving from one thing to the next, or, more rarely, a kind of monumentality of importance that it is a jolt to see a film with an intelligent and sensitive approach that also has in mind actively telling a story to the audience. That story is of an unnamed Mediterranean country that seems Arabic and has a French colonial past, and is now plagued by an untenable combination of active insurgents and a repressive police state. Between these two poles stands the doctor (Ramzy Bedia), treating civilians and those injured on both sides, and drinking himself to mindlessness in-between. Fake soldiers hold up the town’s buses, some journalists are kidnapped and others shot, and people are abducted in the middle of the night, by whom or what side it is impossible to say. Ameur-Zaïmeche uses a pared down palette of sand and stone browns to subdue daily life and long lenses to flatten space and trap all people in this world constrained, paranoid, forever tense, and with little existing beyond the present moment of survival.
The doctor’s girlfriend has had enough and wants to flee the country, but he fiercely advocates for staying—why, he cannot articulate, but it seems chained to his neutral professional duties. One day he too is grabbed from his home, driven to the town outskirts with a bag over his head, and made to treat someone under gunpoint—an action that fails to go unnoticed, and the doctor ends up horribly punished for what is viewed as taking sides when in fact he feels he is doing the exact opposite. His captor asks who was tortured more, the doctor’s father in the resistance under the French colonists, or the doctor now, under the current regime. Bloody and befuddled by pain, the doctor can’t say. Similar to Christian Petzold’s Transit, Ameur-Zaïmeche has made a muffled thriller that is evocative above all in the deadly sparseness of its world, how similar to our dark reality the bare essence of fiction can be. A tragedy about the blurred line between doing good and being ambivalent, Terminal Sud’s thin pretense of being an allegory fails to hide the sinister state many find themselves in today.