BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM reports from the Wellington Film Society. This week: a cold war tale.

THE COLD WAR has just ended and Mathias ends up with a head in his bag when he tries to go back to France to study forensic medicine. Yes, this is an oblique and frequently odd thriller, which looks at the rootlessness of a recently post-Cold War France, a kind of liminal no-man’s land where young people roam around trying to find some purpose in the world. Characters’ emotions are schizophrenic, and narrative matches the chaotic, unhinged nature of the protagonists. La Sentinelle is perhaps too oblique for its own good and whether it thrills or has any sort of emotional centre with its cast of attractive pouting French people is a moot point. But the film is like a slightly less intricate Pynchon novel, and has a fascinating mix of conspiracy theories, science, historical ruminations, ‘post-modern’ blending, and quests for identity.

Arnaud Desplechin gained some prominence for his wonderful Kings and Queen, which sold out at the Film Festival a couple of years back and didn’t return. (His critically lauded film from last year, A Christmas Tale, hasn’t made it to these shores yet.) La Sentinelle was Desplechin’s first film, and while it didn’t make much of an impact upon its release, its themes of ennui, banal madness, and disconcerting interactions seem to run through a lot of his work. The film also stars some of Desplechin’s regulars (such as the marvellous Emmanuelle Devos, and Mathieu Amalric has a small role). His visual style is subtle – La Sentinelle is full of banal shots with recurring visual motifs, such as walls, mirrors and windows.

Desplechin attempts to capture a world where the Cold War hasn’t actually quite ended for its protagonists. The film opens with a discussion on Yalta (or specifically Churchill and Stalin plotting together to carve up Europe, and each trying gamesmanship on the other), and cuts to a young man being accosted on a train as he travels from Germany to his home country of France. Shadowy intrigue from people who would happily inhabit a John Le Carré novel lurk in the corners of the film. But the focus is on predominantly young, attractive people who carry out their own Cold War with their own barriers (the flat becomes a sort of Checkpoint Charlie for example), their own secrets, their own espionage, their own defections, their own selling of secrets to opposing sides, their own struggle to communicate, and their own floating in transient, ill-defined spaces. And there’s a nagging feeling that this isn’t actually happening. A lot of the narrative is frankly bizarre – how would the head not decompose or stink (the skull is almost instead a Yorrick, a manifestation of Matthias’ own wishes and laments, rather than it really mattering who the dead man really was), how are all the people connected in the way they are in the narrative, why do the characters suddenly switch? Through all this, La Sentinelle seems to be suggesting that a political environment like the Cold War discharges only unpredictable paranoia and madness.