Swiss filmmaker Lionel Baier (“Stealth,” “Longwave”) has completed the third movement in his sweeping film tetralogy concerning Europe with “Continental Drift (South).” The film, which debuts at the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight, sees Baier shifting his focus southward to Sicily in 2020, just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and deep within the European migrant crisis.
Isabelle Carré (“Remembering Beautiful Things,” “Mademoiselle Else”) plays Nathalie Adler, who has been dispersed to a migrant camp in Catania, Sicily ahead of a visit from Macron and Merkel only to find her pugnacious son Albert, played by Canadian Théodore Pellerin (“Genesis,” “My Salinger Year”) working against her interests as an activist.
The film, which is produced by Bandita Films with RTS and Les Films du Losange handling sales, strikes a balance between political satire and heartfelt drama, as Nathalie and Albert push and pull, magnetic at the edges of their estrangement. Europe cleverly serves as both vibrant backdrop and catalytic metaphor as the pressure builds around parallel narratives.
Variety spoke with Baier ahead of the film’s world premiere at Cannes.
“Continental Drift” is the third in a collection of four films you’re making with Europe as a central theme. Can you talk about the way this collection came about?
When I began the first film, it was a film about my family. My family comes from Poland, and I decided to go there to make a kind of “eastern Western” because Poland had just become part of the European Union in 2006. Then I decided when I was shooting that film, during the fall of 2005, that maybe I have to do the same with other countries in Europe and to try to make a kind of map, an emotional map, of what linked Europeans together; not only institutions or European commissions or things like that, but also individual stories. There is always something to tell us about the way we are linked together, Europeans.
The relationship between Nathalie and Albert anchors “Continental Drift.” How did you find these actors and how does their on-screen relationship mirror the conflict of the film?
I saw Théodore in a Canadian film maybe four years ago, and I just was amazed by what he did in the film. Isabelle is a well-known French actress, and I knew her because I had seen her on stage and in other films. What we wanted to build together is maybe to be not too metaphorical, to be really sincere with the relationship between them. And then the film will do the job. The film will make the metaphors that you see. So they played it directly and sincerely, the relationship between mother and son. They had to be really honest with themselves, with the interiority of their characters. Then I, as a director, and you, as somebody watching the film, we can try to imagine maybe that there’d be a message or metaphor in that.
What was the writing process like on this film? How did you find balance with the drama and comedy aspects?
Well it really was a long journey. We began to work on this film in 2015. And there were a lot of things which happened in politics that forced us to adapt our screenplay every six months. And it was difficult to keep the politics in a good place, not to take up too much space in the screenplay, and to give a lot of things to say and do to the characters in the first person. There is a lot to say in the film, and every character has something to defend.
Sometimes it’s really complicated in screenplays to have different levels of dialogue, to not always be too smart. And to give everyone something funny to say. You want to give the actors some good lines, but it’s good to sometimes be more modest about the dialogue and to give space for something else. Laurent was also a director, so it was interesting to work with him. We could immediately think about filmmaking; not only storytelling, but also imagining the situation and being aware of where to put the camera, that sort of thing.
There’s a moving scene where Nathalie goes out into Catania and experiences the city at night. What was the importance of setting the story in that city?
Catania is a really famous city in the south of Sicily, and there is an antique history to the city. I felt that when you work Nathalie’s kind of job; you are sent to another country, to another city, and you have to live there and sometimes you are not connected with it. And sometimes you can feel a little bit jet-lagged in your own life. Nathalie’s a little bit like that. She’s a bit lost in this city, as she is in her own life. So I asked the crew to be free one night, and we went out and we just tried to make something in a more documentary style, just to see her a little bit lost, because everything is not so clear in her head. She’s really a powerful person in the film: she has a position, representing Europe in this part of Italy, but she’s a person before all of that. And maybe it’s one of the moments in the film where you can truly feel Italy as well.