Dir: Delphine Kreuter. France. 2007. 82 mins.
Hell is other people - especially family, and especially when they have a camcorder in hand. That's the message of Delphine Kreuter's debut 57 000 KM Between Us, a caustic exercise that uses its rough-edged DV medium to revealing effect, re-tuning French bourgeois comedy for the digital age. The film is so zeitgeist-specific that it could date quickly, but Kreuter's scrutiny of online mores is sincere rather than modish.
Shown in Rotterdam and newly released in France [Jan 23], 57 000 KM makes up in zest what it sometimes lacks in polish, offering some excruciating laughs that recall prime Mike Leigh. Its topical comedy should translate to international niche sales, theatrically and on DVD, and Kreuter's polemical thrust should make both film and director welcome fixtures at festivals, especially where new media is the order of the day.
A teasingly unwrapped narrative begins with a bourgeois family - parents Margot (Thomassin), Michel (Bongard), 14-year-old daughter Nat (Burgun) and younger siblings - driving to the suburbs to visit Grandma in her new house. The sequence - documented on shaky hand-held DV and kicking off with what may be cinema's first extended gag about satnav rage - culminates with Grandma (Julie Land) turning out to be an effusive high-kicking showgirl.
We learn that Margot and Michel are permanently taping their entire lives for their website, on which they promote themselves as the ultimate happy family - which couldn't be further from the truth. Nat takes refuge from her parents' neurotic narcissism, hiding in her bedroom and playing on-line games with Adrien (Bouvier), a teenage boy in hospital with a serious illness.
She also uses her computer for more sexually charged role-playing with an older man, Simon (the ubiquitous Amalric). Meanwhile, logging onto Margot and Michel's website are transsexual Nicole (Michelini) and her North African partner Khaled (Rouabhi), who have some unlikely history with the couple.
Kreuter - previously known for shorts, photos and video work - adopts a kinetic shooting and editing style that can at times be as wilfully disorienting as Cloverfield. The film is cleverly structured to highlight the self-referential, image-mediated structures of its characters' lives.
So exclusively so these characters communicate with each other on screen - notably, in the 'Second Life'-style game inhabited by Nat and Adrien's 'avatars' - that it sometimes comes as a shock when they meet in person. A priceless centrepiece is the catastophic dinner party that Margot and Michel stage for their site, at which just one such explosive real-world encounter takes place.
In the film's fragmented, multi-strand sprawl, some elements don't quite gel with the whole: notably a transsexuals' day out, which nevertheless provides a lively interlude à la Almodovar. Broad as the film's satire is, it makes an incisive argument about the way that cyber-culture's 'immediate' communication actually puts people at a protective distance from each other (hence the title).
In this sense, 57000 KM updates, rather than deepens, the insights made in the 80s about the social uses and abuses of video, in films by Atom Egoyan and Michael Haneke. But Kreuter has an idiosyncratic sense of satirical mischief, and the film offers one of the most invigoratingly nervy uses of handheld DV imagery since the dawn of the Dogme movement.
The cast rises to the occasion with brio and engaging lack of vanity, Thomassin especially, who skilfully treads a delicate edge between neurosis and all-out mania, while Burgun and Bouvier display a no-nonsense candour that marks them out as newcomers to watch.
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