The tumultuous, hotly contested 2012 French presidential election, pitting right-winger Nicolas Sarkozy against socialist Francois Hollande, provides the larger maelstrom against which a couple’s custody battle unfolds in Gallic helmer-scribe Justine Triet’s frantic farce “Age of Panic.” The exes’ skill at sweeping lovers, friends, colleagues, babysitters and total strangers into their emotional vortex adds greatly to the absurdity wending its way through the streets, packed to bursting with masses of warring party enthusiasts. Placing a couple’s inability to mediate visiting rights within the context of extreme political polarization, this whirlwind comedy might prove particularly timely for American auds.
The day begins in total chaos. Television reporter Laetitia (Laetitia Dosch) is on the phone with her boss, explaining why she’s late in covering the elections, while her little daughters scream at the top of their lungs and her overly helpful b.f., Virgil (Virgil Vernier), gives officious instructions to clueless babysitter Marc (Marc-Antoine Vaugeois). Amid all this clamor, Laetitia’s excitable ex-husband, Vincent (Vincent Macaigne), shows up outside, demanding visitation with his kids, although he is a day late and legally constrained to visit only in her presence. She instructs the babysitter not to let him in, and takes off on the back of a motorcycle.
Shot in the thick of the election, on streets filled wall-to-wall with people as far as the eye can see, Triet’s film frames much of the action within jostling crowds as Laetitia sets up for a direct feed. Meanwhile, back at the apartment, Marc proves unequal to Vincent’s blandishments and reluctantly lets the distraught father inside, phoning Laetitia mid-broadcast to fill her in. Stressed beyond logic, she instructs the babysitter to bring the kids to the demonstrations.
With all the main players now on the battlefield (the French title of the film is “La Bataille de Solferino,” referring to both the 19th-century French/Prussian conflict and Rue de Solferino, the street where the political action unfolds), Triet tracks her characters as they attempt to impose their will upon one another, pushing and shoving amid the greater political tug-of-war. A frazzled Laetitia — staving off her increasingly hysterical ex, who berates her for dragging the kids into this melee — must constantly regroup to turn a poised face to the camera and pay attention to news events transpiring around her. It all leads back to Laetitia’s apartment, where Vincent’s law-student friend Arthur (Arthur Harari) winds up serving as de facto legal authority; the arguments are reprised with inventive venom interspersed with bursts of rationality, until some semblance of accord is finally reached, more through exhaustion than anything else.
Triet brilliantly orchestrates the intersection of documentary and fiction. If reality fails to furnish the kind of drama that made Haskell Wexler’s “Medium Cool” such a benchmark, the spontaneous ebb and flow of the enormous French crowds seen here synchs visually and rhythmically with the film’s domestic Sturm und Drang, acted throughout with improvisatory immediacy. Although Drosch’s Laetitia acts out the precarious pressures of the harassed career mom with considerable brio, it is Macaigne’s Vincent, almost psychotically internalizing the panic of his thirtysomething generation, that lingers in the mind; indeed, the downbeat, dirty-haired Macaigne seems to be emerging as French indie cinema’s newest neurotic loser par excellence.