For a still-young subgenre, it can feel as if the narrative possibilities of the War in Afghanistan soldier study are approaching exhaustion — until a film like Clement Cogitore’s clever, curiosity-stoking “The Wakhan Front” points out the pockets of uncanny experience that lie within it still. A portrait of tense frontline routine in which the most urgent threat to troops’ survival takes a distinctly metaphysical form, this brooding broadcast from the Twilight War Zone stars the steadfast Jeremie Renier as a committed French army captain whose authority gradually deserts him when his men begin unaccountably disappearing. Though its disquieting premise never quite combusts into a full-scale psychological thriller, Cogitore’s accomplished, arresting debut should reverberate widely on the festival circuit; select distributors may proceed with caution.
Introducing the film at its Cannes Critics’ Week premiere, its writer-director described it wryly as “John Ford meets M. Night Shyamalan” — as if to pre-empt any such comparisons, flattering or otherwise, from the critical contingent. At a more highbrow level, Cogitore might have invoked Michelangelo Antonioni’s “L’avventura,” a dissimilar investigation of disappearance with which his film nonetheless shares comparable concerns about the presence of absence, and the insecurities that those left behind project into the uncertain void.
“Benedictions are for the dead,” Renier’s Capt. Antares Bonassieu gruffly counsels one of his disconsolate grunts. “What you need is sangfroid — that’s what gets you home in one piece.” Bonassieu seems to have more than enough of that for all his men, though it still doesn’t prevent the strange occurrences that send shockwaves of discontent through his squad, hitherto sleepily stationed on the eponymous corridor near the Pakistani border. (“The Wakhan Front,” incidentally, seems an insufficiently suggestive title for a war film with such abstract themes; distributors may prefer an approximation of the pic’s French title, “Ni le ciel, ni la terre,” which translates as “Neither Heaven Nor Earth.”)
With NATO-led troops in the process of withdrawing from Afghanistan, Bonassieu’s men have little to do with their days but wait matters out until their own departure: Establishing sequences effectively convey the day-to-day grind of life in this oppressively male domestic unit, where pumping iron and recycling banter are all that pass for leisure. (After a dominant run of U.S. films about Middle Eastern combat, it’s gratifying to see other sides of the foreign military experience onscreen: “The Wakhan Front” is as vividly unifying a depiction as Britain’s “Kajaki” last year.)
The troops’ unchallenging military duties principally involve surveillance of the local sheep-farming villagers, whose resistance to the forces has been worn down to impatient tetchiness. A native ritual involving the tethering of sheep to a lone stake planted in the valley arouses suspicion from Bonassieu, however. He senses that it may be a way of communicating with concealed Taliban insurgents, and points the blame in their direction when two of his soldiers fail to return from a night-watch shift.
It emerges, however, that the Taliban have been mysteriously losing men of their own in the same valley. The rival factions resolve to lay down their arms for a joint investigation, though they make little headway. Bonassieu’s sangfroid, meanwhile, gradually drains from his system: As other soldiers vanish, including naive expectant father William (Kevin Azais), he begins to fixate on what he believes are cryptically coded dreams, while maintaining his skepticism as others turn to their faith for clarity and comfort.
Cogitore and co-writer Thomas Bidegain (a regular Jacques Audiard collaborator) are less interested in the phenomenon — earthly or otherwise — behind the disappearances than in the belief systems either agitated or fabricated in their wake. That may disappoint auds seeking a headier tilt into the supernatural, though “The Wakhan Front” remains edgily unnerving even as character drama. The ensemble commits to the premise with utmost gravity and conviction, enabling our belief in even the most improbable interpretations of its core enigma. Maintaining his sympathetic sturdiness even as his force of control weakens, Renier gives a textured human face to the film’s most esoteric ideas.
Tech contributions are uniformly outstanding, with d.p. Sylvain Verdet’s glacially composed long shots often losing the actors in the landscape’s rye-colored expanses of dust, rock and ruin — it’s certainly an environment conducive to vanishing by any means. Cogitore will occasionally disrupt the taupe consistency of the scenery with more brashly lyrical imagery: A rippling gold-foil camouflage cape serves both a critical narrative function and a visually poetic one. Sparse, specific sound design keeps nerves on high alert, as does Eric Bentz and Francois-Eudes Chanfrault’s score, with its alternation of ethnic and electronic elements. One abrupt dance sequence, set to an aggressive techno track, seems a direct homage to Claire Denis’ “Beau Travail” — still the gold standard for studies of soldiers lost (even when found) in the desert, though “The Wakhan Front” is a worthy admirer.