Two conflict journos go to the front, but only one comes back in Slamdance jury prizewinner “Snow and Ashes,” a well-lit, well-acted but otherwise exasperating study of the lunatic impulses that drive war photographers to put themselves at risk. While it’s ironic that a film about photogs could be ruined by bad camerawork, first-time writer-director Charles-Olivier Michaud’s decision to shoot everything handheld, employing guerrilla-style coverage and disorienting jump cuts whether characters are in peril or back home in Quebec, makes the otherwise intriguing concept frustrating to watch. Beyond Canada, this noble effort seems destined for an unmarked DVD grave.
Michaud toys with the idea of using a hackneyed amnesia plot to justify the film’s odd flashback structure. Pic opens with war correspondent Blaise (“Entourage’s” Rhys Coiro) recovering in a hospital bed after collapsing in the snow while escaping some unnamed Eastern European hot zone (clearly inspired by Chechnya). Blaise isn’t characterized as an adrenaline junkie per se, but he clearly took the assignment against his better judgment, enlisting friend and photog David (David-Alexandre Coiteux, also a producer on the film) for the trip.
Unlike Blaise, David seems to have his domestic life in good shape, and tagging along means leaving behind the woman he wants to marry (Lina Roessler). David doesn’t make it home, and though we understand this from the beginning, it takes an awful lot of melancholy memories and other artsy affectations for the movie to arrive at the anticlimactic moment of his death.
Blaise clearly carries the tragedy on his conscience, the unbearable weight of which presumably explains the film’s mopey tone and skittish structure (if not the bad poetry that bookends the picture). Collaborating with more experienced cinematographer Jean-Francois Lord, Michaud adopts a visual approach intended to mirror Blaise’s mental state. During hospital scenes, though the shots are not subjective, Lord constantly futzes with the focus, giving everything an amateur “Diving Bell and the Butterfly”-like effect that draws too much attention to the camera tricks, at the expense of the emotion.
At first, the other time periods seem a jumble, as Blaise struggles with his memories of the front — a mix of visions, including the face of a young refugee he fell in love with there (played by the Bond girl-worthy Marina Eva), convincingly grim re-creations of the wartime atrocities (typically viewed through a camera viewfinder) and vague flashes of stumbling through the snow to escape an unseen enemy.
As the story unfolds and certain visions recur, these scenes begin to make sense. Through well-designed interiors and clever use of Quebec locations, the environments look convincing. Still, the more time we spend in them, the more mundane it all seems, to the point that, with the exception of the occasional off-screen explosion, the danger never feels real. Footage, shot primarily on Red cameras, borrows the overused too-blue treatment of contempo thrillers for an appropriately gritty texture.