German director Valeska Grisebach first came to Cannes with her standout debut Longing. Arrogance, cultural prejudice and tradition are the themes explored in her Un Certain Regard drama WESTERN, a smouldering slow-burner that follows a group of German builders tasked with connecting a Bulgarian village to the water supply of a nearby river. Arriving proudly from a rich Western country they quickly assume authority but soon find the challenges of the landscape and climate and strength of the local community more difficult than anticipated and they are forced to compete and bargain to get their job done.
Grisebach cinema verite style has much in common with that of Christian Petzold in the way she slowly builds her narrative offering plausible characterisations and a palpable feel of the locale. She also uses non-professional actors in a drama that is strangely unsettling, while also remaining enigmatic, particularly in its inconclusive but fitting finale.
The story centres on maverick former soldier “The Lieutenant” Meinhard (Neumann) who has only recently joined his German co-workers but instead of bonding with them decides to explore the area on a white horse wandering in the hills nearby. Recalling a German version of Clint Eastwood in his strong and silent demeanour, his killer stare comes in handy when signalling disapproval. It emerges there were sociable links between the villagers and German soldiers during WWII) and he quickly makes friends in the shape of teenager Yanco whose uncle, Adrian (Syuleyman Alilov Letifov), turns out to be the owner of the horse, and the two become strong buddies using hand signals, despite the language barrier.
Grisebach explores cultural differences and it soon becomes clear that the locals are not to be messed with when a young woman is challenged by Meinhard’s co-worker who takes her sunhat while they are all swimming in the river. This becomes a bone of contention between German and Bulgarian, clearly establishing the close ties and fierce protection of the local womanby their men.
There is an enigmatic and meandering quality to the narrative that could have benefitted from some tightening up in the second act – two hours running time is too long for a film of this nature, where suspense and atmosphere is all that drives the narrative forward, but nothing major happens along the way. There is much to be enjoyed from the interplay between the characters and Neumann is a fascinating performer in his role as a quintessentially mercurial man who has nothing to lose. MT
CANNES FILM FESTIVAL \ UN CERTAIN REGARD 17-28 MAY 2017