There is surely no obvious halfway house between combat in the Middle East and domestic repose in small-town France. So if you’re going to pick one, it may as well as be the gaudily luxurious Mediterranean resort scene, the simultaneous tranquility and horror of which just about balance the scales. In “The Stopover,” the sensually rendered but tough-as-twine sophomore feature from sister duo Delphine and Muriel Coulin, a seaside decompression program for a horde of homebound French soldiers only winds up tightening the knots of tension between and within them — particularly for the squad’s female members, suddenly battling a surge of pent-up misogyny. As cuttingly observed as it is pristinely composed, the film marks a step up from the Coulins’ already considerable 2011 debut, “17 Girls.” Social and political topicality, meanwhile, should further encourage distributors to make a longer stay out of this “Stopover.”
The Afghanistan War PTSD drama has become, in recent years, a busy subgenre — beginning most actively in American cinema, but now encompassing alternative territories and perspectives. This French-Greek production arrives on the heels of Denmark’s otherwise dissimilar, Oscar-nominated “A War” in illuminating the plight of European soldiers in the Middle East, but stakes a significant claim of its own: Few, if any, previous films have explored the psyche of military women in this conflict with quite such shading and sensitivity.
This isn’t a surprising area of study for the Coulins, whose “17 Girls” — an airy fable about a band of teenage girls who resolve to simultaneously bear and raise children together — showed keen, witty insight into the changing dynamics between women in a communal setting. In this case, while women constitute a clear minority in the group, that doesn’t necessarily forge a tidy bond between them; among its many virtues, “The Stopover” steers clear of patronizing girl-power rhetoric.
The narrative focus rests principally on two servicewomen, Aurore (the ever-interesting Ariane Labed, of “Attenberg” fame) and Marine (singer-actress Soko, popping up in her second Cannes entry this year after “The Dancer”), who have been close friends ever since their school days in the military town of Lorient — also home to the characters of “17 Girls,” not to mention the filmmakers themselves. Having completed an evidently grueling tour of duty in Afghanistan, Aurore and Marine’s unit is sent on a three-day course of physical and psychological therapy at a high-end coastal resort in Cyprus. There, rounds of partying and pampering are interspersed with group counseling sessions, where their recent Afghan actions and strategies are reviewed with the aid of virtual reality — leading to heated arguments between soldiers with wildly differing memories of key traumas.
Per press notes, this practice has been standard for returning French troops since 2008, though the Coulins — working from a novel by Delphine — slyly play up the absurdities of a treatment that essentially suspends war-battered fighters in a chintzy bubble of spa culture and boozy Euro-disco. An introductory image arrestingly sets a tone of deadpan semi-surrealism for proceedings, as Jean-Louis Vialard’s languorous camera gazes into a darkened aircraft interior, in which rows of identically posed soldiers slumber in macho fatigues and dainty blue eyemasks.
Aurore and Marine each respond differently to their plush, strange new environment. Aurore proves reasonably receptive to the eerily hi-tech group therapy, cathartically revisiting a failed tank operation that cost several fellow soldiers their lives. Marine, however, bitterly clams up, somewhat resentful of her friend’s compliance. More vocally hostile toward Aurore are some of their predominating, latently violent male cohorts, who prefer to let sleeping dogs lie, however wounded. Meanwhile, the amiable impositions of Fanny (Ginger Roman), another female member of the unit, further drive a wedge of sorts between two old friends who may share a momentous life experience, but haven’t necessarily emerged with compatible impressions of it.
Heading up an ensemble that blends professional thesps and formal soldiers to seamless effect, the two excellent leads play their characters’ prickly, intimate relationship with mutual watchfulness and intuitively coded body language. Labed, bound for English-language multiplex exposure later this year in “Assassin’s Creed,” has cultivated an angular, sharp-sad intensity of presence that is ideally deployed here.
The Coulins’ spare but efficiently escalating script is peppered with unforced observations on how extreme, unresolved trauma is differently recognized, managed and confronted in men and women — as well as how different women survive heavily patriarchal institutions, whether via assimilation or stout resistance. A climactically out-of-control night on the tiles that sees the women go off-grid with a couple of Greek admirers serves as a queasy reminder of the everyday sexism that awaits them back in the real world.
Vialard’s steady, perceptive camera works in graceful harmony with this subtext, as its spacious, symmetrical compositions often place bodies in pointed dialogue with one another. There are formal and tonal echoes of Claire Denis’ “Beau Travail” to the film’s more regimented set pieces, even if its storytelling hews to safer conventions. Speaking of conventions, “The Stopover” is a somewhat prosaic, unevocative English appellation that carries little of the wry irony and melancholy of the original French title, “Voir du pays” — which translates, with an undertow of rueful military satire, as “See the World.”