Film Review – Neither Heaven Nor Earth
Neither Heaven Nor Earth
The title of Clément Cogitore’s Neither Heaven Nor Earth (2015) points toward the supernatural. If the setting of the writer/director’s story doesn’t take place in a heaven that we understand or an earth that we’re familiar with, then where does it take place? Purgatory perhaps? A place where lost souls go to wander, heading in no specific direction without any sense of purpose?
The narrative methodically presents questions without ever giving us any answers. We’re dropped in the middle of war-torn Afghanistan, amongst a group of French soldiers posted in the high desert mountains. Led by Capitane Antares Bonassieu (Jérémie Renier), the soldiers’ primary objective is to secure nearby villages from terrorist groups. Early on, we get glimpses of life in the military that are pretty familiar with what we’ve seen before: patrols across the terrain, the soldiers working out and building an overall camaraderie, frequent meetings with the Afghani locals, etc. The establishing mood is one of tedium and routine.
Things change quickly when Bonassieu’s men start disappearing one by one without a trace. Is this the work of the Taliban or of the locals? During the previous night, a group of people were seen sacrificing a goat on a hill – could that have something to do with it? Cogitore pulls the rug from under us, switching the tone from a war film to something more ghostly, more psychological. As more of Bonassieu’s men disappear and those remaining grow restless, we watch as the mental anguish and desperation start to wear on him. Renier’s performance does an excellent job of capturing these conflicting emotions with the character – he tries his best to remain cool and in charge, but can’t deny the strange occurrences taking control out of his hands.
Watching this, I was reminded of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). In that, a group of Australian schoolgirls go out on an excursion only to vanish into thin air. Their disappearance mystifies and haunts the remaining staff and students. Neither Heaven Nor Earth doesn’t reach the heights of Picnic at Hanging Rock, but it does carry over the unnerving feeling of forces at play beyond our understanding. For many, their biggest fear is the unknown, and Cogitore plays into that idea. A prime example is during the scene in which a soldier leaves his comrade at their post to urinate. In one unbroken shot, we see the soldier walk away from the post, do his business, and return only to find the other soldier missing, the latest victim of an invisible enemy. The sequence is subtle but effective.
Cogitore drops little clues here and there for us to decipher, although many of these are just red herrings. A nighttime visit from a man on a motorcycle to the French outpost, a young Afghani kid trying to sell his goat, weird metal bars sticking out of the ground – they all somehow feel connected and disjointed at the same time. But these are all a means to an end: the bond between the soldiers being tested in the face of mounting dread. Some of the stronger moments show Bonassieu and his men trying to figure out just what the hell is going on – whether it’s interrogating the locals or even interacting with the rebels.
The digital photography (Sylvain Verdet) lends toward the otherworldly approach that Cogitore is going for. Shots of the landscape has an impressionistic texture, they could very well be photographs of another planet. Night sequences are highlighted through night vision goggles, giving us the perspective of the soldiers. Human figures far off in the distance have an alien-like quality to them. We have French soldiers in an unknown land, trying to cooperate with a people whose language they don’t understand, suddenly brought into a conspiracy they have no grasp over. If we step back for a moment, this could very easily be tagged as sci-fi fare.
For all the good things Cogitore and production do, I walked away wishing I liked it more. Once we realize that we’re not going to get an explanation, the narrative plateaus and then dips down as it loses momentum heading into the third act. I started losing interest as the languid pacing started to take a toll. Having an explanation for everything is not necessary for a movie to be good; in fact it can be beneficial in allowing analysis and interpretation to come in. But here the narrative stumbles once we get past the novelty of the premise. There isn’t much urgency in the second half. While there is clearly desperation amongst the characters, everything else (tone, editing, etc.) moseys along behind them.
Neither Heaven Nor Earth had the makings of being “great,” but never rises above only “good.” I can see people – especially fans of art house cinema – being big fans of this. I appreciate and understand what Cogitore was going after, and maybe a rewatch would help. Problem is, I don’t think a rewatch is going to happen anytime soon.