There was a moment back in 2008 that casual science enthusiasts might remember, just before the Large Hadron Collider was first activated, when armchair observers experienced a frisson of semi-superstitious worry. The nuclear research device, after all, was specifically designed not just to discover the unknown but to create the conditions under which to examine it, and no amount of rational thinking could entirely obliterate an abstract uneasiness that maybe we were going too far, that some cosmic catastrophe might ensue: our collective lizard-brain instinct of “what if?” It’s that unfounded, unspoken anxiety that Blaise Harrison’s debut feature “Particles” evokes so well that it threatens to obliterate the very slight coming-of-age story it adorns.
Set with clever specificity in a small French town on the Franco-Swiss border, below which the CERN Large Hadron Collider goes about its borderline-mystical physics, the film follows a group of local teenagers, in particular Pierre-Andre (Thomas Daloz) or P.A. for short. With his shaggy Mod haircut and long face usually wearing a disaffected expression, P.A. is pretty much your classic teen: He doesn’t like school, is in a garage band and is so tight with his reckless bestie Merou (Salvatore Ferro) that when the latter hooks up with Léa (Emma Josserand), the girl they both know P.A. likes, it barely puts a crimp in their friendship. Especially since, soon after, P.A. starts to hang out with Roshine (Néa Lüders), a German girl in fragile health living nearby.
Outside their classes, including a supervised school tour of the collider, the gang do regular teenage stuff, dodging their largely absent parents to party and take drugs and tentatively experiment with sex. But during one mushroom-fueled camping expedition, Merou goes missing, which is only the latest in a series of odd occurrences so subtle they’re less like surreal interludes than tiny glitches in P.A.’s reality. Is it the hallucinogens, the hormones or the hadrons?
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Unease, like low-level background radiation, permeates DP Colin Lévêque’s beautifully composed, often eerie frames, complemented by the hovering, subtle score from Belgian musician Èlg. Sometimes slow motion is deployed and a simple shot of the boys engaging in horseplay on one of the town’s quiet, well-tended streets, suddenly becomes an epic comment on the transience of youth, fringed with a sense of foreboding. A murmuration of starlings wheels above ominous industrial architecture like smoke from a chimney stack; a long panning wide shot across a search party combing the wintry woods ends pinned to a close-up of P.A.’s blankly uncomprehending face; a high shot of a boy cycling home on a deserted country road feels doom-laden, despite the bright daylight. As a technical, almost scientific exercise in the use of cinematography, crisply assured editing and rich, immersive sound design to evoke unplaceable disquietude, “Particles” is a great success.
But the story, and how much Harrison actually does with all this mood, disappoints. P.A., such an archetypal teen that he’s also rather disengaged — perhaps a factor of having stopped his medication, presumably for some sort of ADHD — is not the most dynamic of protagonists, and occasionally his inarticulateness starts to grate. More critically, his response to the unexplained phenomena that do occur, and that fit with the film’s dark-matter atmosphere, is one of dreamlike dissociation that seems to evaporate from one scene to the next. He remembers whole events (which we also witness) that, according to the other participants, did not occur. He sees a strange optical-illusion shimmer every now and then. He discusses with Roshine the feeling that everything in the world is changing and no one but him is noticing. But though little bombshells like these seem to point the way to some grander mystery, a kind of metaphysical “Mean Creek” that perhaps links Merou’s disappearance to the strange light P.A. sometimes sees in the woods and the machine humming deep underground beneath their feet, it’s a chain of allusion that is left frustratingly unfinished.
Instead we get a rather ambivalent resolve to the far less engaging rite-of-passage teen drama, which has by itself little to say about growing up that hasn’t been said before. And the two strands — P.A.’s real life of teenage angst and ardor, and the idea of the nuclear collider environment as a place of potential dimension-altering power — never really mesh in any meaningful way, like two beams of energy blasted out in perfect parallel. Indeed, if drama is conflict, perhaps Harrison’s beautiful, exceptionally crafted, intriguing but ultimately unsatisfying debut is the product of a similar challenge to that which faces the CERN scientists, and which makes the LHC, to the disinterested layperson, an often anticlimactic endeavor: so many particles, so few collisions.