Rachel Lang’s Baden Baden begins as the protagonist Ana finds her way to the film set where she works. She is late; she mutters under her breath and tries desperately to reverse the car. On arrival, her boss shouts in her face aggressively. She stands, seemingly unscathed as he points his forefinger to the set, telling her that it is her fault that they are running an hour late. From the outset, we can see that Ana is on the brink of failure. She is clearly bad at her job, she cannot make appointments on time and she fails to wear suitable outfits to the events she attends without the help of her housemate.
In what seems like a crucial and defining moment of clarity, Ana steals her work’s rental car and returns home to Strasbourg to help her grandmother, played by Claude Gensac. Ana’s grandmother becomes an instant foil to Ana’s flaky, meandering soul. An uncompromising matriarchal figure, her stalwart demeanour showcases the film’s capricious humour. But she falls ill and finds herself in hospital, where she is provided with an iPad that depicts a stream of family photos to keep her occupied. While in hospital, Ana makes it her project to renovate her grandmother’s bathroom, a space that has begun to provide an imminent threat to her already declining health.
Shots of Ana removing the bath and instaling a shower, alongside the docile Gregoire, who she met at a DIY store, become one of the film’s many architectural vignettes. The scenes work to uproot and reimagine film history’s use of the shower scene as a space where physical and metaphorical violences against women take place. Baden Baden’s bathroom is the backdrop for Shakespearian comic relief and gives structure to the film’s intentionally aimless, episodic narrative.
As well as renovating the bathroom, Ana also spends her listless summer days with Simon, a friend with whom she has a charged, physical relationship; Boris, an artist and former lover with whom she rekindles with after a long time apart, and her housemate Mira who she also seems deeply connected with in their many Skype conversations. Each scene Ana shares with her unconventional network of friends and lovers centres on seemingly momentous conversations that fail to coalesce. These underwhelming moments reflect Ana’s apathetic demeanour and convey the large space between what we know she wants to achieve and what actually seems to happen. The film employs the anti-climatic as a cathartic outlet for her frustration. In the beginning when Ana steals the car, she drives fast along motorways that lead her home. She is pulled over and has no driving license, but she returns the car to the rental company with little consequence. Nothing quite happens and yet the narrative arc feels all the more compelling because of how little materialises
In a scene after a heavy night out, Ana and Mira wash next to the one another from a small basin. The scene is languorous and banally dreamlike as they slowly scrub themselves clean. Water runs throughout Baden Baden, from Ana’s desire to renovate the bathroom, to the eponymous title of the film: a German spa town that is never featured. These nods to bodies of water are a murky reminder of the in-between: a shadowy, autonomous space where bodies are free to roam and languish. The liminal is Baden Baden’s driving force. In many ways, it is a film about and without borders. Set mainly in Strasbourg, which has had its own fraught history as both German and French territory, this hybrid space functions as the perfect foundation for a film that explores the gaps and borders between gender and identity.
During a scene in her stolen Porsche, Ana sings along to the lyrics of a song: ‘Mais moi, j’aimerais vraiment pouvoir abandonner mon Moulinex/ Devenir unisexe’ / ‘But I’d like to be able to give up my Moulinex / To become unisex.’ But Ana has succeeded in abandoning conventional moulds of femininity. She presents a boyish aesthetic and inhabits a non-normative gender identity. Rachel Lang has spoken to this, revealing that she wanted Ana to be ‘human’ and to remove ‘all the codes of female attractiveness’. Whilst Ana does benefit from all the privileges of a heteronormative sexual relationship with the various men she is with, Baden Baden goes to great lengths to reorganise the visual hierarchies associated with the historically gendered positions of desire.
All of Ana’s male interests in the film look similar to one another and it is only at the end of the film where Ana finds difference in the intriguing construction worker, Amar. We are shown a scene of two tangled bodies; one amorphous identity, as the limb of one becomes that of another. It is only when Ana springs out of her bed to answer the door that we recognise her. Lang refracts and recalibrates this positioning of standard models of desire and purposefully plays with Ana as the agent of her choices. As the audience, we are asked to actively explore what the act of looking might be, what it means to desire and what it means to find a naked body unrecognisable, veiled in darkness. We come to grips with Ana’s sexuality at the same time as she does, grappling with what it means to want and desire intimacy, contentment and love.
In a short essay, Meghan Daum describes the feeling of being in her twenties as ‘the ache of not quite being there yet’. This ache typifies Baden Baden: a film of false starts and anti-climaxes. Lang contrasts this inner chaos with the geometric order of Ana’s world. She is always looking; from balconies, from car windows, from the side of a swimming pool. The world around her is in order, consisting of straight lines and tidy geometric finitude, yet she is always thrown out of perspective. Baden Baden makes present the subtle, often painful, ache of finding your way and keeping afloat.
Bryony White is a writer based in London. She is currently undertaking an LAHP funded PhD at King’s College London that explores the relationship between contemporary art, performance and the law. Her essays and non-fiction have been featured in publications including The Awl, this is tomorrow, The Quietus and Bust. More of her work can be found at bryonywhite.com / @bryonylwhite.