A farming couple trying to live an ecologically pure and ethical life are stymied by nature and their own uncontainable inner forces in Bettina Oberli’s solid and engaging “With the Wind.” Handsomely shot in the Swiss Jura mountains, the film nicely explores the unpredictable intersection of ideals and passion, making a parallel between mankind’s inability to control the natural world and human fallibility when it comes to keeping emotions in check. Although the male lead gets little scope for development, the female characters experience a meaningful trajectory, resulting in a satisfying drama that could do good business in European markets.
A quote from British writer Rebecca West about our species’ self-destructiveness — “Only part of us is sane,” it begins — acts as a concise introduction for what’s to come, implying a turbulence matched by a rain storm that forms a backdrop to the delivery of a stillborn calf. Pauline (Mélanie Thierry) and her partner of 15 years, Alex (Pierre Deladonchamps), own an organic farm which they proudly maintain free of any chemical intervention. Given their ecological zeal, it’s no surprise they welcome Galina (Anastasia Shevtsova), a Ukrainian teenager who’s the beneficiary of an organization that places kids who grew up near the Chernobyl disaster in fresh-air Switzerland for the summer. Galina however is less than thrilled to be dropped off at an isolated farm that barely has a phone signal and no wifi connection.
Alex is waiting in excited anticipation of the arrival of his dream: a wind turbine that will allow them to generate their own clean energy. The delivery is accompanied by Samuel (Nuno Lopes), a worldly engineer who’ll be staying in one of the farm buildings to supervise the installation. Sexual tension between Pauline and Samuel is immediate, and detected early on by the quietly observant Galina, but Alex is oblivious since he’s fixated on realizing his goal of going off the grid.
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In one of the film’s best scenes, Pauline takes Galina for a night out dancing, enjoying the escape from nonstop farm duties but also from Alex’s constant preaching of the anti-capitalist, all-natural gospel. In a moment of solidarity, Galina asks Pauline if she’s in love; Pauline assumes she means Alex, when in fact the perspicacious teen is talking about Samuel. Late that night, the illicit couple consummate their attraction, but Samuel’s job is finished and he’s about to leave. The turbine is gloriously up and running, but for Pauline it becomes an ever-present symbol of thwarted desire — so, in a sleepless fury, she smashes the mechanism.
Pauline’s clandestine act of violence, which she blames on an unknown intruder, becomes the threshold moment when she assesses whether Alex’s increasingly vehement isolationism fits with her own desire to engage with the world. A little more chemistry between Pauline and Alex would have made the decision more dramatic, but Oberli prefers to keep the human drama on a more contained level, carefully calibrating the emotional rhythm while using nature’s tendency to destabilize, whether via storms or fog or disease, to create additional tension.
“With the Wind” is the Swiss-German director’s first feature in French, and she seems at ease with the language switch, helped by an excellent cast. Thierry’s fresh-faced beauty lends itself to an outdoorsy setting, and she sympathetically conveys Pauline’s inner struggles when being a good caretaker for the earth just isn’t enough. The script (Céline Sciamma is credited as collaborator) could have added more subtlety to Alex’s character, but Deladonchamps is an ace at throwing himself into extreme roles, and even Shevtsova leaves an unexpected mark despite an underwritten role. Cinematographer Stéphane Kuthy’s light and flexible camera has a satisfying, at times tremulous inquisitiveness, finding the balance between people and nature.