#52filmsbywomen 24 – Baden Baden and the Ana Trilogy
Posted March 6, 2017on:
No. 24 – For You I Will Fight, White Turnips Make It Hard To Sleep, Baden Baden (Rachel Lang, 2010, 2011, 2016)
The coming of age story is a familiar genre in cinema, but is largely focused on young men growing up in suburban United States. For the past six years, Rachel Lang has been revisiting Ana, the main character of her first short For You I Will Fight, using the same actress Salome Richard, to create a highly realistic exploration of a young woman in Strasbourg. Richard Linklater’s Boyhood might be the obvious comparison, particularly in terms of the director’s longtime dedication to its subject, but typically of the European art house, there is little clear narrative, instead capturing moments in Ana’s life and leaving the audience to draw their own conclusions. Culminating in Baden Baden, Lang’s heroine has no clear trajectory, which is the point somewhat. Just as each film seems to give clues at to how her life might turn out, the next film suggests that she has turned back on herself, or made a different choice. In that sense, it is one of the most authentic depictions of young adult inertia on screen.
We first meet Ana in For You I Will Fight as she goes through training for the army reserves with three other women. She is recovering from a romance gone wrong, and is initially out of place. When asked her reasons for signing up, she speaks haltingly, eventually giving a limp answer about wanting to travel. In contrast, one of her fellow recruits, a young mother, speaks decisively about her motivations. Eventually Ana settles in, and the women form a tight bond – one sequence sees them practise harmonies of marching songs, laughing and winding each other up like any other group of young women, except they are in army fatigues. The short closes just as it seems Ana is finding her feet.
For the sequel, White Turnips Make It Hard To Sleep, Lang doesn’t indulge us with an update on Ana’s army career. It is alluded to once, when Ana defends another girl from some flirtatious soldiers on a train, offhandedly pointing out how their bootlaces aren’t regulation, but does not otherwise silence them by boasting of her own military background. In a sense, it’s a shame, given that For You I Will Fight is such a striking piece and seems very much the beginning of an important period in Ana’s life. But it seems totally true to the character of Ana, whose identity is in transition throughout the series. She often seems to take on the characteristics of those around her rather than define herself by her experiences alone. At first glance, Army Ana stopped existing when she left, but somewhere, deeper, it lingers.
White Turnips… really embodies the themes of the whole series, which will then come to fruition in Baden Baden. Ana, now living at home, travels to Brussels to visit her boyfriend Boris, a relationship she hides from her mother. Their happy reunion crumbles after a fight at a party, and Ana decides she is tired of being long distance. The plot seems deceptively slight. Alarm bells ring at the idea of defining Ana according to her love life, but there is more at work here. Here we see Ana the free-spirit, still fairly passive but gradually finding her voice and ultimately fighting back against Boris’ domineering qualities. By Baden Baden, she will finally come to trust her own will, although it is a bumpy journey.
As with White Turnips, Baden Baden sees an indefinite leap in time with no obvious link to her previous experiences. Now Ana works as a driver on a film set, albeit one with a reputation for being unreliable. Deciding to cut her losses, she extends an airport run by making off with the production car and heading home to see her grandmother. She ambitiously decides to redo her grandmother’s bathroom, despite no DIY experience, while her grandmother goes into hospital and she finds herself juggling her parents, her friends and Boris as she ambles along in her now-familiar haphazard way. Again, the plot is lean and again, gradually, layers reveal themselves, and in particular, in combination with the previous two shorts, connections and correlations appear. The effect is a subtle but devastating depiction of early-twenties ennui, and Ana as a cinematic creation of unusual authenticity.
Her decision to redo the bathroom is as impulsive and ill-considered as her trip to Brussels in White Turnips… and perhaps even her army days. It leads to some of the funniest scenes in the film, particularly involving the hapless Gregoire, a warehouse worker who she somehow ropes into helping her. Her mother is doubtful, telling Ana, “you have to know what you’re doing,” and that “you should at least ask for advice.” (Gregoire agrees.) Ana ignores her childhood friend Simon when he advises her against getting involved with Boris again, listing off compelling reasons – he won’t wear condoms, his art is no good, he doesn’t love her but the idea of her (something Ana previously told Boris in White Turnips… – for all her flaws, at least she’s self-aware). But Ana ignoring sound advice is a recurring theme. The only person who she does accept advice from is Amar, an immigrant builder, who is initially reluctant to get involved in her project due to his own focus and ambitions, but is eventually worn down by Ana’s unusual determination. The bathroom is, however unlikely, a success. Ana reports that her grandmother wants her to do the kitchen next.
The two prior films depict Ana in new situations, whereas Baden Baden challenges her and our expectations by placing her in her hometown of Strasbourg among her friends and family, and yet Ana is equally unmoored in her surroundings. Ana’s meandering is part of her nature, not simply a reaction to a new environment. She is not a certain person. Invited on a bus trip, Simon’s friends perform acapella, recalling the marching songs from the training camp, only Ana now observes rather than joining. She borrows a fancy dress from the wardrobe department for the wrap party, but is clearly ill at ease with the glamour, and it does nothing to create a new version of herself, as the AD still treats her dismissively and lists off her next duties. There are frequent shots of Ana’s POV as she stares over her grandmother’s balcony, the world upside down and unfamiliar, children on scooters playing as though there’s no gravity. Everything about Ana’s world is confusing, and she fights to find some sort of foothold.
Yet we do see a more playful side to Ana in Baden Baden, even in moments of stress. She interrupts her heart to heart with Gregoire to pretend the showerhead is the phone, and poses for photos with the film set’s car that the police force her to return. When Simon loses his temper at her, she teasingly tries to push him into the fridge. It is only with Boris that she is intimidated into silence. She encounters him while taking her friend’s son Pol on a boat trip, and struggles to play along with Boris’ joke that Pol is their son. His reappearance is perhaps the greatest source of tension in the film. Now a smug video artist, he is equal parts charming and cruel towards her, telling her she looks ugly with her new haircut. A later scene finds her hiding upstairs at his parents’ house, ostensibly taking a break but clearly suffocated by him, her nostalgic memories shattered by the real life reminder of his personality.
One of the threads running through the whole series is Ana’s disastrous sexuality – not so much the act itself, but the consequences. The opening scene of For You I Will Fight sees Ana getting an STD test, her judgemental nurse mocking her for imagining her teen romance with her unfaithful boyfriend would last forever. White Turnips… similarly sees her have an argument with a chemist over a faulty pregnancy test. Baden Baden follows a somewhat logical progression where she has an abortion, after a stern and frankly cruel lecture from her doctor. This topic, normally treated with extreme solemnity and, indeed, quite straight-faced here when taken in isolation, becomes almost humorous when we know Ana’s history and repeated humiliations from unsympathetic health workers. But it’s also liberating – would the Ana of For You I Will Fight be able to face the doctor in Baden Baden trying to talk her out of the abortion with the same calm determination? And in the end, Ana finally receives some understanding, as she confides in her friend, Mariam, mother of Pol, who we expect to disapprove as a mother, but instead offers support, kindness and jokes about suppositories.
One of the most impressive things about Lang’s series is not just the world she built, and the connections she draws, but how little fanfare these intriguing links receive. Lang is not interested in showing off her writing dexterity. Instead she handily foreshadows and echoes for the sake of making Ana’s life more vivid. Gregoire appears briefly in White Turnips…, a workmate of Ana’s friend, who mentions he is no good at DIY. They do not recognise each other, just as in real life, people’s paths cross with little impact. But is it coincidence, deliberate, or just a bit of fun for Lang to cast the same actor whose character made such a claim specifically to assist Ana’s construction project? Lang confidently suggests that Ana’s life extends far beyond the edges of the frame.
But if you look too far, guessing ambiguous characters relationships and wondering if references are essential or just examples of local colour, you might miss Lang’s tangled depictions of what’s in front of our eyes. This is displayed most obviously in a striking sequence of a helicopter landing, which pulls out gradually to reveal Ana is in fact watching some of Boris’ mundane video art. Gregoire knows nothing about DIY, despite where he works – he explains he is there to translate for French customers. Ana doesn’t correct her friend’s assumption that she is a drug dealer, to explain why she drives the glamorous Porsche. There is another layer to this as part of an English-speaking audience, where we are at the mercy of the subtitles. The clearest ambiguous translation this unilinguist could pick up is Ana’s cheerful “bye” on the phone to Amar is actually, if translated directly, “bisoux, bye” – adding kisses to her farewell, changing the meaning of their interaction.
Lang weaves a more intriguing thread that runs through the whole series, never openly discussed but compelling nonetheless. Ana’s quest towards adulthood is not necessarily a quest towards womanhood, but perhaps an acceptance of her own gender ambiguity. Visually, Salome Richard is gangly and mercurial; frequently dressed in shorts and vests, and with shorn hair and no make-up, she appears as coltish and unselfconscious as a teenage boy. One scene in White Turnips… sees Ana take off her top in a drunken, post-argument funk and return to the party, but not as a prelude to a flamboyant love scene or traumatic rape scene. Instead she is simply at ease in her own skin, if unaware of her impact on those around her (a naïveté which infects her dynamic with Gregoire and Simon) – but this is not to undermine the hints of her sexual fluidity that flicker throughout the films. The doctor lectures her on when she should be ready for motherhood, but Ana can’t connect. However, this isn’t an angsty exploration of gender issues. Ana is largely untroubled by her indefinite sexual identity. When driving (or speeding) in the Porsche, she sings along loudly and passionately to a punk song on the radio, displaying more joy than we’ve seen in the whole series: “I want to be unisex!” Lang speaks in interviews of how she wanted to depict a genderless character to emphasise the universality of Ana’s experiences, and what a relief it is not to have an everyman, for a change.
The Ana at the end of Baden Baden is at once much changed from For You I Will Fight, and yet still totally herself. Haven’t displayed unusual tenacity in coercing the reluctant immigrant Amar into fixing the final issues with the bathroom, she finally gets him to unpeel some of his own layers to her. Unlike her meandering, artistic friends, Amar is focussed and determined. He works hard on the building site, each day closer to his ambition of joining the Foreign Legion, another link with Ana’s military past. In the final shots of the film, they take a day out together, philosophising over artistic shots of unusual architecture in the countryside. Perhaps his drive intrigues her, or his lack of self-involvement or navel gazing. But Amar is a respite in Ana’s stormy life, and their day out is almost refreshing to watch. It seems cheap to call it a hopeful ending, but it shows Ana’s resilience and mellow attitude. Perhaps she has changed, perhaps the world has. Either way, Baden Baden is a fitting end to Lang’s Ana trilogy, yet Ana is such an memorable character, and so beautifully performed by Salome Richard, that it would be a real shame if this was the last we saw of her. Lang’s next film takes place in the French Foreign Legion. Don’t be surprised if Driss Ramdi’s Amar makes an appearance. For Rachel Lang, the world isn’t quite so big as it seems.