Clément Cogitore’s eerie metaphysical genre-blender Neither Heaven Nor Earth, which opened Friday, and Alice Winocour’s stylish thriller Disorder, due August 12, both feature French combatants of the phase of the Afghan War that concluded in 2014.
Neither Heaven Nor Earth‘s Captain Antarès Bonassieu (Jérémie Renier) faces unexpected supernatural torments while stuck in the lunar Wakhan Corridor close to the Pakistan border. Suffering PTSD back in France, Disorder’s Special Forces vet turned security operative Vincent Loreau (Matthias Schoenaerts) confronts assassins (seemingly government-issue) hired to rub out Lebanese financier Imad Whalid’s German ice-queen wife Jessie (Diane Kruger) and their six-ish son Ali on the family’s lavish compound.
Whalid (Percy Kemp) is an arms dealer, and since dawning love as well as professional pride drive Vincent to risk his life for an attractive blonde woman and her little boy, Disorder is strongly reminiscent of AMC’s sleek John le Carré miniseries The Night Manager. In its Hollywoodish veneer, Disorder couldn’t have been anticipated as the second film by Winocour, director of the superbly fusty late-19th-century feminist drama Augustine.
First-time feature director Cogitore has presumably partaken deeply of Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Apocalypse Now’s quasi-mythical aura. As Bonassieu’s band of brothers mysteriously dwindles in numbers – the same fate suffered by the rag-tag Afghan unit, possibly pro-Taliban, that morphs from the hills to consult with the Frenchmen – they enter a Conradian ‘heart of darkness’ that one spooked rookie thinks is God’s work. Though Antarès beats up an Afghan villager, enraging the man’s teenage son, no-one can accuse Neither Heaven of Islamophobia: toward the end, Cogitore shows the French soldiers awed by a Sufi chant. The men who disappear paid the price not for fighting in an imperial war but for sleeping on Allah’s sacred ground.
Each film is driven by its towering central performances. The Belgian actors Renier and Schoenaerts, both at the top of their game, make their characters’ emotional responses to traumas more indelible than the bloodyings they receive.
Renier, the short, blond, cherubic man-child of the Dardenne brothers’ La Promesse, L’Enfant, and The Kid With a Bike, bulked out and became swarthier to play Antarès as a capable, resilient officer who deals with different men in different ways. Fatherly toward a young soldier whose wife at home is about to give birth, he contrives to return him to HQ as the danger intensifies, though the gambit fails. When his obstreperous, trance-dancing corporal demands their mission be shut down, Antàres subdues him and avoids a potential mutiny by hurling the man’s kit at their stockade’s walls.
Like another rookie in his charge, Antarès is himself undone by the metaphysical ramifications of the four disappearances. When an Afghan chieftain threatens to cut his throat, his eyelids drop and he looks fleetingly at the ground, suddenly unmanned. His grace evaporates and he nearly goes mad like Klaus Kinski’s Aguirre, but he pulls back from the brink to cover up the unsolved depletion of his unit in a way that honors an Afghan tribal tradition, suggesting he is privately making peace with the locals.
No matter that he is plagued by auditory hallucinations, nightmares, and bleeding, Disorder‘s Vincent yearns to return to Afghanistan. His war in uniform is clearly over, yet people have a habit of re-creating their chosen realities wherever they are and Schoenaerts’s taciturn Adonis – probably an habitual silent loner – is no exception. Hired with other burly vets to provide security at a swank party thrown by Whalid, and attended by a sinister presidential hopeful whose presence triggers a conspiracy theme, Vincent stays on as Jessie and Ali’s bodyguard when Whalid goes abroad. His lugubrious air masks his lust for Jessie, who’s skimpy clothes prolong his voyeuristic sessions at the compound’s CCTV monitors. The grainy images feed Vincent’s growing paranoia – as the sickly green night-vision goggle images shared by Antarès and his men as they patrol their valley heighten their dread of what’s out there.
Schoenaerts has become one of Europe’s most powerful leading men thanks to his ability to exude machismo, force, tenderness, and intelligence, sometimes in the same characters, as in Rust and Bone and Far from the Madding Crowd. Winocour frequently shoots him in great, looming closeups, sexually objectifying him while trying to burrow into the mind of a man still reeling from the atrocities he has witnessed.
Despite his prowess with fists and guns, Vincent is socially inhibited and makes agonizingly slow progress romancing Jessie. He is abashed by his inability to flirt with her as smoothly as does the ex-vet friend (Paul Hamy) he invites over to help him defend her and the kid. Trying to get Jessie to recognize the evil of her husband’s trade, Vincent can’t help but menace her with his bulk – and senses he has sabotaged their unspoken courtship.
Later, when Disorder seems on the verge of becoming another Straw Dogs, he demonstrates how lethal he can be when his blood is up. Or is that the moment that clinches her love for him? The ambiguous note on which Disorder ends suggests that it’s the animal, not the knight, in Vincent that finally gets to her. Grace under pressure plays a part, too, but not necessarily the biggest.
Neither Heaven Nor Earth is in theaters. Disorder opens in New York and is available On Demand on Friday, August 12.