By Jessica Kiang | The Playlist December 2, 2013 at 4:00PM
How much does autobiography help or hinder a film's effectiveness? Norwegian director Erik Poppe's first English-language film, which played at the Marrakech Film Festival as part of the tribute evening honoring its star, Juliette Binoche, is avowedly based on incidents, and professional and personal quandaries the director himself experienced with one crucial change: Poppe switched the lead roles around so that it is Binoche who is his proxy, and Kingslayer Nikolaj Coster-Waldau playing the character based on Poppe's wife. That change is crucial to the final film and as it wears on, begins to look like maybe the best narrative decision that could have been made. Not only does it give Binoche the central role, which she carries with her typical flinty accomplishment, but in making the war photographer who is torn between vocational passion and home life into a woman, new layers are added to what might otherwise simply have been a "man's gotta do"-style story of paternal absence. In fact, we wondered if several more deliberate deviations from the "truth" of Poppe's personal story might not have given a more satisfying shape to its otherwise rather formless, episodic structure and shaken up a film that, while often beautiful to look at, feels oddly bloodless in execution.
We say "oddly" because the premise of the film is passion: Binoche's Rebecca Thomas is a famous, fearless and driven war photographer ("one of the five best in the world" claims her narratively convenient New York editor) who is also a wife and mother of two daughters, both of whom, along with their hunky marine biologist father (Coster-Waldau) are used to her extended absences. As the film opens, however, Rebecca is embedded with a group of Muslim women in Afghanistan engaging in some sort of ritual; soon it's revealed that they are preparing one of their number for "martyrdom" via suicide bombing. Rebecca is so focused on getting the photos that she ends up travelling into Kabul with the bomber, and it is her desire for just one more photo as she is getting out of the van that attracts the attention of the police and causes the woman to detonate her vest early, killing many nearby and seriously wounding Rebecca.
It's a gripping beginning, executed with visual flair but never at the expense of building the stakes and the characterization, and Binoche is particularly terrific as the quasi-possessed, laser-focused photographer, almost more a human camera in these moments, than a human being. And it neatly lays out some truly fascinating questions about the nature of the voyeuristic act of photography, how much the act itself changes that which it supposedly objectively documents, and where one's responsibility should lie in trying to prevent tragedy rather than report it (Rebecca realizes what is going to happen and calls out to try and warn the people around; later she admits to feeling guilty because it was her presence that meant that "those particular people, in that particular place" were the ones to die).
But the film doesn't really then address these fascinating, rich territories. Instead it somewhat belies the potential transgressiveness of the gender swap by turning its focus away from Rebecca the photographer and onto her as a mother, as she recuperates at home in Ireland. Her marriage is being tested by her apparent lack of care for her own safety and the way she prioritizes her vocation over her family. And of course this proves the film's central concern: Poppe seems to want to make a statement on how differently the world judges Rebecca's priorities because she is a woman, than it would were she a man, which is ambitious considering he is basing it on his own (male) experiences. But having gone to some trouble to lay out this issue, the film again does little with it and instead begins to rely on increasingly heavy-handed and contrived dialogue and plot points to map Rebecca's moral journey.
The eldest daughter Steph, played well despite the limitations of the script by Lauren Canny, is the worst served by these awkward turns, with her hero-worship of her mother resulting in some trite moments. A scrapbook in which she has painstakingly assembled all the birthday cards she's ever received from her absent mother, alongside painfully on-the-nose handwritten notes in the "Mum couldn't make it back for my birthday like she'd promised" vein seems summoned into being purely so that Binoche can weep over its pages at a certain juncture. And later, Steph delivers a presentation to her school about a trip she and her mother take together to Africa which actually ends with her referring to the beleaguered refugees in the camp they visited in her saintly, self-sacrificing revelation that "they need my mother more than I do" which again, Binoche is on hand to hear and Be Moved By. Ultimately the credibility-testing way the dichotomy of Rebecca's life is laid out diminishes our investment in her predicament and the film starts to feel repetitive as it wends its way to an ending that feels like it could have happened several cycles before it actually does, with no loss of impact.
The cinematography, as you would expect from a director with a photographer's eye, is elegant and aesthetically pleasing. But again, pleasant doesn't feel particularly appropriate to the story of a character who is, as she says at one point, motivated by anger, by real fury and a burning desire to shake people out of their political and social apathy through the power of the printed image. A little like another of the story's underdeveloped strands—whether Rebecca's photos glamorize the horrors they depict—the film itself often seems to choose polish over punch, and after a while the overweening tastefulness of the whole endeavor starts to grate.
Elsewhere the performances are decent, with Coster-Waldau a sympathetic presence and Maria Doyle Kennedy doing impressive work with a small role as Rebecca's closest friend. And U2 drummer Larry Mullen Jr doesn't disgrace himself, though his role is so marginal that it feels like it plays out entirely in our peripheral vision. No, the issues we had with the film are much more fundamental. Ultimately it feels like Poppe wanted to say something about a great many topics: gender roles and expectations; the nature of photography and whether it can actually effect social change; the acceptable level of sacrifice one can make to pursue one's passion, and so on. But what he concludes on any one of these points is never clear, so the film simply meanders, perhaps following the rhythm of the real-life events on which is was based a little too closely. Ironically, considering the story's thrust, it is the way Poppe uses his ex-war photographer's eye to elevate the conflict sequences that provides the film's best moments, along with a typically committed and occasionally fierce performance from Binoche. But those two impressive elements can't ultimately compensate for the enervating effect of so many fertile issues introduced only to be muddied into confusion or simply abandoned. [C+]