"The Wakhan Front" by Clément Cogitore (FR)
Festival de Cannes 2015 - Special Screenings - Critics' Week
Name: Will Guy
An otherworldly mystery set within the war in Afghanistan, Clément Cogitore’s debut feature The Wakhan Front, fully exploits its genre to deliver a tension that hooks us into the film, though declines to see that device through to a satisfying conclusion. Cogitore’s background in contemporary art saw his last short film selected for Cannes' Directors’ Fortnight in 2011. He now returns to compete within this year's Critics’ Week, having extended the concept to feature-length through a screenwriting residency in Rome.
The Wakhan Front centers around a group of French soldiers stationed on the border of Pakistan to keep the Taliban at bay. They wait, focused on their imminent return to their families. That is, until soldiers begin to disappear without any trace of struggle. This narrative sets up a puzzle that is the backbone of the film. Cogitore knowingly hooks us in by crafting an enigma so indecipherable that we cannot hope to solve it.
The first half of the film the plays with our curiosity, and with awareness of the implications the wartime setting ascribes. While the soldiers react to the unknown force that seems to be abducting their comrades, we quickly appreciate the fear of the invisible. We then find an underlying critique of the firm logic of these men, asserted in contrast to one young boy who suggests that we must have faith in that which we cannot see.
These themes certainly work well within the context of war. However, this same device leaves the film impossible to end. The genre demands a mystery that leaves us eager to uncover more. We are forever in search of the piece of the puzzle that allows us to make sense of everything. This is how Cogitore builds his addictive suspense, but the difficulty here is that the suspense cannot be exploited forever, and the moment must come when the film requires closure.
It is ultimately the strength of this conclusion that we remember when walking out of the cinema, and sadly this is where the film falls short. To escape resolution the film treads water, and begins a series of scenes that attempt to channel Apocalypse Now.
Sadly, these moments of despair lack conviction, though the actors are not at fault. Jérémie Renier delivers an impressive lead throughout, supported by a cast who take well to the requirements of a film based around anxiety.
Despite the best efforts of its cast, The Wakhan Front's rising action leads to a climax that does not satisfy. When the film finally opts to flesh out the reality of the mystery we experience a shift that undermines the thrill that had been built upon an uncertainty of what is real and what is imagined. As a result, the concept is more difficult to accept, the tension does not dissipate, and the questions remain. We are left fixed to the screen as the lights come up, but are too busy searching for answers to give applause.