Two penpals from France and Germany navigate an in-person relationship in Claire Berger’s coming-of-age drama

Langue Etrangere_Credit Les Films de Pierre

Source: Les Films de Pierre

‘Langue Etrangere’

Dir. Claire Burger. France/Germany/Belgium. 2024. 105mins

Love, familial angst and the future of Europe mix together in a largely compelling if ultimately schematic mix in Langue Etrangere, a Franco-German female coming-of-age story about crossing borders, both geographically and emotionally. French writer-director Claire Burger made her name with the co-directed Party Girl (2014), followed up by tender-hearted Bouli Lanners vehicle Real Love. But here she is on her most confident form yet, aided by strong performances from up-and-comers Lilith Grasmug and Josefa Heinsius, and support from arthouse-friendly Euro stars Nina Hoss and Chiara Mastroianni.

 Largely compelling if ultimately schematic 

Serious-minded political themes, simmering tension and tenderness between the two young leads, and an overall intelligence combine to just about overcome a final collapse into contrivance. The film should win respect and interest, if not blazing enthusiasm, among discerning audiences; especially a young LGBT+ constituency.

The film begins in Leipzig, in former East Germany, with the arrival by train of French teenager Fanny (Grasmug, from Mikhaël Hers’ Passengers Of The Night). Fanny – from Strasbourg, where her parents are interpreters – is met by Susanne (Hoss), the mother of her penpal Lena (Heinsius). But Lena is away at a demo and, when she arrives, is not remotely welcoming towards Fanny. The French girl does not quite click at Lena’s school either but, as the two young women gradually reveal their vulnerabilities, they thaw towards each other – very much so at a party, with the help of some chocolate-coated mushrooms and an enthusiastic but clueless lad.

Lena’s stay comes to a head when stressed-out Susanne blows her cool at an unfortunate lunch with her ex, his kids and her reactionary father. At mid-point, however, Burger and co-writer Léa Mysius (known for collaborations with Claire Denis and Jacques Audiard, and her own The Five Devils) flip the picture, as Lena comes to stay with Fanny in Strasbourg. At first things go well, as she is welcomed by the latter’s parents Antonia (Mastroianni) and Anthar (Jalal Altawil ). But soon Lena gets a harsh reception at a French school, then because Fanny – newly politicised by Lena’s influence – starts following her own neuroses into murky areas, including her search for an elusive activist half-sister.

Burger builds things slowly in the first part, nicely playing the two young leads against each other – Fanny’s fragile reticence, Lena’s spikier defiance – then lets Grasmug and Heinsius build rapport together against a backdrop of familial angst, and a strong sense Europe’s political past and increasingly troubled present. Themes such as German reunification and the current rise of the far right make a well-defined context for the urgency of the girls’ fears and passions, as well as their parents’ awareness of their own mistakes and eroded ideals.

The Strasbourg section duly builds on themes, hints and riddles carefully planted in Leipzig. But, as we get to the heart of what has been worrying Fanny all along, the pieces fall into place a touch mechanically, and the film, for all its empathetic insight, risks becoming too much a textbook study in a ’problems-of-today’s-youth’ vein. Even so, a canny intelligent feminist approach makes Langue Etrangere highly engaging, and Burger gets a keenly matched pair of performances from her young leads. Hoss is terrific too, in a very different mode from the Christian Petzold leads that she is best known for.

A somewhat candy-box palette of blue-dominated pastels makes for an odd visual choice, but Leipzig and Strasbourg locations (including the European parliament) root Langue Etrangere solidly in a realistic contemporary Europe that is every bit as concrete as the generational and political issues that the film sketches out .

Production company: Les Films de Pierre

International sales: Goodfellas

Producers: Marie-Ange Luciani

Screenplay: Claire Burger, Léa Mysius

Cinematography: Julien Poupard

Production design: Pascale Consigny

Editors: Frédéric Baillehache, Claire Burger

Music: Rebeka Warrior

Main cast: Lilith Grasmug, Josefa Heinsius, Nina Hoss, Chiara Mastroianni, Jalal Altawil