Ground Control: Winocour Pours on the Paranoia with Tense Thriller
Director and screenwriter Alice Winocour crafts a sweaty-palmed, PTSD inclined thriller with sophomore effort, Disorder. Somewhat inclined as a French version of The Bodyguard (1992), itself a muddled American pop culture homage to Kurosawa’s 1961 samurai classic Yojimbo, this odd genre mixture arrives with troubling political undertones hovering in the paranoid perimeter of a debatably deranged security guard’s watch of a wealthy Lebanese businessman’s family. Decidedly simplistic in form, it’s an elegantly crafted exercise enhanced by its particularly complex audio design, initially positioning its sullen protagonist as merely a madman approaching a breaking point. But more is revealed in the frequent display of observational skills, including a variety of non-verbal cues shared between its main characters through increasingly murky intrigue.
Recently returned from serving in Afghanistan, Vincent (Mathias Schoenaerts) suffers from night terrors and bouts of debilitating paranoia. These tell-tale signs of PTSD make his future military career grim. In the meantime, he takes a job working security on the private residence of a wealthy Lebanese businessman, Imad Whalid (Percy Kemp), noting a wide range of possibly alarming signs as he secures the premise for a party. When asked to stay on through the weekend to watch the man’s wife, Jesse (Diane Kruger) and their young child, Vincent agrees. But while Jesse seems oblivious to any danger, Vincent becomes increasingly concerned someone may be trying to harm her.
Much like Winocour’s first film, the 2012 period piece Augustine, she focuses on a particularly complex central relationship between two people from alternate social spheres, this time with the control of the genders swapped. Initially titled “Maryland” when it premiered in the Un Certain Regard sidebar at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, so titled for the palatial estate of the Whalid’s, neither title offers any sense of clarity in this increasingly distressing scenario.
Jean-Stephane Bron’s purposefully vague script drops us into the troubled wake of Vincent, a soon-to-be ex-French Special Forces soldier whose mental state clouds future possibilities of employment in the only profession he knows. As his main pal, Paul Hamy (also starring opposite Diane Kruger in 2015’s Sky) barely acknowledges his friend’s degrading mental state, to the degree where we wonder if he has something to do with the conspiracy involving Jesse.
The success of the film relies on the brooding Schoenaerts, formidable (as always), though in a vein not too dissimilar from the tragic cattle farmer in 2011’s breakout Bullhead. Kruger, also, is once again an evasive, distancing beauty, more an object of admiration than figure of interaction. Her coldness, however, lends the swiftly moving thriller easy access for some other talking points Winocour attempts to work less seamlessly into the mix, issues involving women whose lives are blindly determined by men, whether they be the Islamist ladies referred to in news soundbites, or white trophy wives who turn a blind eye, like Jesse. Here, these moments seem like afterthoughts meant to grant Kruger’s clueless wife extra dimension, but obviously this isn’t as clearly defined as similar themes from Winocour’s recent Cesar win for screenwriting on Mustang.
The initial party sequence includes some surprisingly comical moments, such as a slo-mo gaze through a gaggle of dancing, inebriated rich women on the Whalids’ lawn, swinging obliviously to Azealia Banks’ “212.” Moments later, in a search for Jesse requiring Vincent describe her to colleagues via walkie-talkie has one of them wryly declaring, “they’re all blonde.” Additionally, Winocour taps French techno DJ Gesaffelstein to provide the film’s delicious soundtrack, enhancing the film’s electro ambience and the continual sense of more being there than meets the eye at any given moment.
Disorder seems most successful during its first half, as we cringe in anticipation of Vincent’s bungled efforts to protect Jesse and her child, resulting in an anxious trip to the beach which matches the fateful extended drive at the end of Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl (2001) in its fostering of dread. Shortly after, when the film becomes resigned to being a domestic thriller, it would seem we’ve been unnecessarily doubting Vincent’s ability all along. Or have we?
The decidedly one-sided romantic angle throws a beautiful, even touching monkey wrench into the film’s final frames. Defying as many expectations as it satisfies, Disorder is an intriguing, complex psychological portrait enhanced by a superb lead performance from Schoenaerts and a striking palette from DP George Lechaptois (who collaborated on Augustine and Rebecca Zlotowski’s first two features).
Reviewed on March 7th at the 2016 Rendezvous with French Film Festival – 101 Mins.