The benignly dull Switzerland of Harry Lime’s famous summation in “The Third Man” (“…brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock”) is nowhere to be found in Swiss director Cyril Schäublin’s clinically intelligent, laceratingly pessimistic feature debut. Envisioning the outskirts of Zurich as a gray, unpeopled dystopia of alienation and dissociation, “Those Who are Fine” may be set in the present, but its subtle uncanniness makes it feel like near-future sci-fi.
For such a tightly constructed work, the film, which received a Special Mention in the First Feature section in Locarno, starts deceptively loosely, with the story of a scam. Told as an anecdote by a court reporter chatting about her work day to some friends, the grift is a particularly heartless one: a young woman, in cahoots with a geriatric care nurse, has been targeting old women as senility begins to take hold, and conning large sums of cash out of them by posing as a granddaughter in need. It’s not immediately clear how subsequent scenes relate to this oddly angled, murkily shot beginning, but gradually it becomes apparent that in a slanted, skewed, fragmentary way, they all combine to tell that very story.
The perpetrator, Alice (Sarah Stauffer), works in a call center by day. It’s a dodgy operation that appears to be a large-scale phishing scam, under the guise of selling broadband subscriptions for a Big Brother-like telecom company called Everywhere. Cut-rate insurance and other high-margin products are also on offer. Between this unscrupulous line of work and her side income relieving old ladies of their savings, Alice has amassed enough money to open an account at a private bank. Meanwhile two detectives are put on the case; a male nurse (Daniel Bachmann) notices that elderly Mrs Oberli seems to be on the decline; and police officers in riot gear mill around, absently carrying out spot checks.
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The various strands of “Those Who Are Fine” (the ungainly appellation, much more natural and resonant in Swiss-German, is the title of a jaunty 1970s folksong) are presented separately, crossing over in only oblique, background ways; that’s key to the film’s effectiveness as a study of an atomized society. Performance style is undemonstrative and impassive: Even when Alice comes face to face with her victims, there’s no flicker of remorse or triumph — or anything at all on her perfectly blank face.
The art background shared by Schäublin and his close collaborator and cinematographer Silvan Hillmann is in evidence in the film’s ascetic, stylized formalism, which contributes to the film’s icily dehumanized (in)expressiveness: the deliberately uncheerful low-contrast photography that often leaves faces in shadow; the unbalanced compositions in which people are dwarfed or dissected in the frame; the use of surveillance video-style high angles, looking down so that we rarely see the sky or get a sense of the horizon.
Against the sharp angles of modernist architecture, soulless office interiors and geometrically generic plazas, the characters in the broad, largely undifferentiated ensemble interact in only the most cursory of ways. Often their enervating yet fascinatingly rendered conversations take the form of the recitation of long strings of numbers — identification codes, Wi-Fi passwords or account numbers. Even between friends, dialogue is stilted and transactional, with frequent references to the deals being offered by Alice’s sham companies, giving even intimate conversation the tinny ring of an infomercial. More meaningful moments of human connection are thwarted: There’s a hummable tune that one police officer can’t get out of his head but his friend cannot identify, and there’s a film whose convoluted plotline people can recount without being able to recall the title.
There’s something of the merciless, scathing formalism of Austrian provocateur Ulrich Seidl’s docu-fictions here, but if anything, Schäublin works at an even further bloodless remove, and his aesthetic is very different: wilfully dour and off-balance. And yet for all the careful asymmetry and disquieting composition, there’s exceptional precision to the mechanistic way the scenes fit together, like dully glinting cogs and brushed-steel gears. Perhaps that’s the way the filmmakers’ nationality most reveals itself in this impressively uncompromising debut — “Those Who Are Fine” is not crafted with the cutesy artisanship of Harry Lime’s cuckoo clock, but it ticks through its brief 71 minutes with the implacable, impersonal, perfect engineering of a high-end Swiss watch.