The most popular films at any Alliance Francaise French Film Festival are invariably the vehicles for the big local stars. On the whole though, these are the least interesting films. Almost all the best films this year feature the emerging stars of French cinema, as evidenced by The Stopover, a potent, important drama that delivers a knockout punch.
It concerns a group of French soldiers who, before returning home from Afghanistan, are flown into Cyprus for a three-day decompressing exercise. This involves sessions where each soldier takes his/her turn standing up before the group and putting on a virtual reality headpiece before being taken back to their worst experience during their tour of duty.
There’s a little precursor to this exercise on the plane when the film begins. Two female soldiers have been handed a survey to gauge any psychological side-effects to the tour. They deliberately fudge the survey, knowing any admission will only lead to further cross examination.
During the early sessions, the soldiers are understandably guarded. Telling the truth is seen as inviting trouble, not just for themselves but for the whole unit. Everyone just wants to go home, and being put up in a 5-star hotel with rich tourists doesn’t make them feel any closer to reality.
For most of the soldiers, letting their hair down is all the decompressing they have in mind. It makes you feel a little sorry for the other guests in the hotel because there are some seriously coiled up tensions and frustrations within the group.
There’s a real sense of dread that intensifies as the film progresses, for you just know that the senior officers are going to find that one weak link to crack open the chain of secrecy. When it finally happens, it manifests itself in ways that are unexpected and shocking .
Writing/directing duo Delphine and Muriel Coulin (a rare sister act in the filmmaking world) have done a bang up job of ratcheting up the tension with a tight script that carries no excess fat. They deservedly won Best Screenplay in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes at last year.
They’re ably assisted by a crack cast of up-and-comers. The aforementioned female soldiers, Marine and Aurore, are the focal point among the ensemble. They are played with great conviction by Soko, who stars in another of the festival’s films, The Dancer, and Ariane Labed, whose credits include English language films The Lobster and Assassin’s Creed.
Also a standout among the uniformly excellent cast is Karim Leklou, who always brings a dangerous edge to his roles.
The sun drenched backdrop, gleaminglingly captured by Jean-Louis Vialard’s cinematography, belies the darkness of the material.
Even if The Stopover were in English, it would be a hard sell commercially, which is a shame because it’s a very compelling story told with great economy and skill. Given it won’t be getting a theatrical release is all the more reason to see it at the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival.
The Stopover is currently screening at the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival
Richard Leathem @dickiegee