Just when you think modern cinema has exploited the found-footage conceit from every conceivable angle, along comes a tragicomic mockumentary tracing Bosnia’s recent war-ravaged history via the travails of a young French film crew getting to the root of a reincarnated identity crisis. Aude Léa Rapin’s first narrative feature “Heroes Don’t Die” is nothing if not novel, passing its elaborate concept through a range of genre possibilities — from droll road movie to post-war trauma study to metaphysical ghost story — without settling on one in the course of 85 minutes. Yet this amount of fussing over its final form means the film’s own characters never quite come into focus, making it hard to invest much belief in their wilfully absurd meta-movie: The final result is a curio at best, given flashes of human dimension by the ever-reliable Adèle Haenel as the project’s forbearing director.
For Haenel, “Heroes Don’t Die” marks the least substantial of her three leading roles at this year’s Cannes festival, though it does call on both the tender openness and deadpan comic control that she exercises in Céline Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” and Quentin Dupieux’s “Deerskin,” respectively. Her involvement offers a slight boost to the film’s distribution potential, though it’s hard to see this French-Belgian-Bosnian co-production scoring far beyond home turf following its Critics’ Week premiere. For Rapin, it’s hopefully an ambitious calling card for future, more fully realized projects marrying high-concept and documentary sensibilities.
Rapin’s script, co-written with leading man Jonathan Couzinié, offers little in the way of preamble, jumping straight into its central, most credibility-testing idea in the very first scene. On restless, grainy video, we watch as Joachim (Couzinié), a slightly manic-seeming Parisian in his mid-thirties, relates an unsettling anecdote to his best friend, eager journalist Alice (Haenel): Earlier that day, he was accosted in the street by an incensed stranger who claimed to recognize Joachim as the reincarnation of Zoran, a soldier who died in Bosnia on August 21, 1983. That happens to be Joachim’s own date of birth; the coincidence, combined with inexplicable Cyrillic scrabble that he jots down while sleepwalking, leads him to think there’s something to the unsettling encounter.
Level-headed Alice is gently skeptical of the supernatural element, but thinks there may be a story here anyway. In short order, she gathers cheery sound technician Virginie (Antonia Buresi) and cameraman Paul — never seen or heard in the film, though his eyes are effectively ours from this point — to accompany them on an investigative trip to Bratunac, the drab, undistinguished Bosnian town where Joachim’s supposed former self was laid to rest. Once there, the project swiftly and unsurprisingly hits a wall. Rapin milks some dry comedy from the team’s geographic ignorance and haphazard research, though it’s hard to believe that Alice, for one, would expect the single, locally ubiquitous name Zoran to yield any kind of clear direction for their search.
These light brushings of farce sit oddly against the film’s more earnest reckoning with the region’s troubled political past, which kicks in as our amateur docmakers gradually find their feet — placing the elusive Zoran’s death in the context of decades-old Balkan conflict that still has many locals in mourning. (That he apparently died nearly a decade before the Bosnian War started further complicates the story’s historical frame of reference.) The filmmakers find themselves close to Srebrenica, where over 8,000 people were massacred in 1995; their shambolic film-within-a-film is dwarfed by such knowledge, but in turn, “Heroes Don’t Die” also feels perilously minor as it builds its semi-whimsical narrative around this national legacy of pain.
Joachim’s interior crises and apparent mental illness are a bit too vaguely sketched to propel the film through such thorny thematic territory: The uncertainty over whether he’s genuinely driven by uncanny spiritual conviction, or has simply made the whole thing up, palls as a point of interest some way before the end. More compelling is his flinty, push-pull friendship with Alice, whose gradually wavering-to-diminishing faith in her troubled friend is played by Haenel with typical delicacy and emotional intelligence. Meanwhile, if cinematographer Paul Guilhaume (so integral to the success of Léa Mysius’s 2017 fest breakout “Ava”) can be said to be playing himself as the ever-present, put-upon “Paul,” his antsy, on-the-hoof lensing — roving with equal curiosity over tight domestic interiors and magnificent Balkan mountainscapes — makes for the film’s most dynamic performance.