Soldate Jeannette (2013)

Genres - Comedy  |   Sub-Genres - Black Comedy, Satire  |   Run Time - 80 min.  |   Countries - Austria  |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Review by Nathan Southern

Austrian director Daniel Hoesl's comedy Soldate Jeannette stars Johanna Orsini-Rosenberg as Fanni - a middle-aged Viennese eccentric. When we first see her, she's surrounded by material comfort, including a gorgeous, sprawling, furnished apartment, and she spends her days enjoying the pleasures of the idle class, such as mud facials. All is not copacetic chez-elle, however: two landlords soon turn up at her home, and declare that because she hasn't paid her rent for three years, they will evict her that particular afternoon, court order in-hand. The only solace that they can offer her is a document that will provide a one-week extension to clear her things out- which she refuses to sign. In fact, her entire demeanor projects a shocking apathy. In time, it becomes apparent that she has simply grown exhausted with the burdens of contemporary living - enough so that she isn't even willing to tie up loose ends in the city - and desperately needs a change of venue. After getting locked out of her apartment by the evictors, she withdraws an obscene amount of money from her bank account, steals a car from a local dealership, and flees to the woods, where she promptly burns all of the cash in a fire . In the second half of the film, she relocates to a livestock and potato farm and takes a job there. It is about here that the second female protagonist emerges: Anna (Christina Reichsthaler), a laborer involved in a torrid affair with a male chauvinist pig. Anna reveals that she's as sick of grungy farm work as Fanni is of posh living, and she also desires greater richesse. As the two women meet and become friends, they begin to switch places.

This is one of the weirdest, funkiest outings to reach U.S. cinemas in quite some time, with an utterly bizarre premise. To cop a phrase that Leonard Maltin used about Liquid Sky: "It's a one-joke movie, but when the joke is this good, it's hard to complain." Here, the set-up and follow-through couldn't be any simpler, but Hoesl has an approach so deadpan that we feel disarmed: he pulls humor from the chasm between the apparent irrationality of Fanni's actions, and the placidness of her demeanor in the face of impending personal disaster. The fun, for us, lies in our uncertainty: it's quite entertaining trying to figure out the method to this odd woman's "madness." Especially in its first half, the movie feels heavily influenced by the Yugoslavian director Dusan Makavejev - there are strong suggestions of the 1981 picture Montenegro, both in the premise that has Fanni seemingly cracking-up in the bell jar of modern urban life, and in the screwy dialogue delivered with a poker face. For instance: one character tells another an anecdote about a Romanian man who threatened to leap off a building in political protest if government officials didn't change their ways. When asked what happened, the woman replies, "He seriously injured himself." Hoesl interpolates a great deal of film-specific humor as well, with satirical references to Godard (Fanni attends a screening of The Passion of Joan of Arc, but unlike Anna Karina in Vivre sa vie, falls asleep and snores in lieu of crying) and Chantal Akerman (Fanni recommends "that very funny movie, Jeanne Dielman" to a friend). These inclusions revealthat Hoesl is a born cinéaste, and his love of the medium itself is contagious.

Hoesl's cinephilia also permeates the second half of the film, albeit in a more earnest way. At about the same time that Fanni reaches the farm and Anna enters the story, the director cuts to a grotesque, gory sequence involving the slaughtering of cows, and the disposal of their excrement-filled intestines. It's a Brechtian device (also overtly Makavejevian in its use of textures and repulsive substances) that sensorially knocks us out of our collective stupor, and signals a massive shift in tone: in the sequences that follow, the director begins leaning on unconscionably long, detailed shots of farm life that somehow, despite our memories of the butchery, achieve an intoxicating lyricism and sensorially drive home the lure of farm life for Fanni. These passages bring to mind directors such as Georges Rouquier and Raymond Depardon, with their instinctive, poetic feel for the draw of agrarianism, and its connection to the land; in fact, so effective is Hoesl's technique here that, like the said filmmakers, he comes close to achieving a cinematic equivalent of one of the Virgilian eclogues.

The juxtaposition of the two parts of the movie may make it sound schizoid. It isn't the slightest bit so, largely because each half of the narrative functions as an logical extension of where Fanni is at at that point in her journey. If the movie lets us down, it only does so in the final ten or fifteen minutes. Hoesl sets everything up for a swap of the two women's lives and circumstances, and ends the story minutes after this occurs, without really exploring the consequences. We prepare ourselves for (and the movie seems to foretell) developments along the lines of Bergman's Persona, with less existential/hallucinatory and far more comedic overtones. This never plays out, however, so when the credits turn up, we can't quite believe the picture is over. That disappointment notwithstanding, though, this is still a fascinating and defiantly original picture, with characters the likes of whom we've never encountered in another movie, a story that defies expectation at every turn, and a ravishing blend of styles. As such, it's a small and unexpected treasure of a film.