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Lucas Testro [Film Festival 08.18.12] scifi dystopic

We all have favourite movies, like Blade Runner, Dark City or the Star Wars films, that we love because of the new worlds they create so comprehensively on-screen. But few films have succeeded in world-building so elegantly, and from so little, as writer/director Jean Baptiste Leonetti's dystopian sci-fi feature Carre Blanc, which traps us in a world where the citizens paste on smiles out of fear for their lives while inside they silently scream.

Leonetti achieves miracles (though "miracle" is not really an appropriate word for something so disquieting) from nothing more than carefully constructed establishing shots and clever sound effects in the film's opening minutes, conjuring a horrifying parallel world. As the camera lingers on dark wideshots of menacing concrete tower blocks, a P.A. system constantly updates the public on population figures (800 million and dropping, always dropping), in between announcements urging people to make a baby tonight. Later, the announcer reminds kids that if they're 14 years old, they're able to volunteer for artificial insemination, before returning to the broadcast to its regular programming of animal noises that suggest the planet's natural world might also be a thing of the past.

As the film opens, a female factory worker responsible for collecting and processing corpses (it's implied the corpses are reprocessed into food) commits suicide, and her son Philippe is sent into state care. It turns out the state has a particularly brutal approach to care. For a world so concerned with its falling population, this society seems designed to pit its citizens against one another, with the weak picked on and killed with cruel casualness. A quick jumpcut forward 10 years finds adult Philippe (Sami Bouajila) is now himself one of the state's leading officers, psychologically torturing people in a series of eccentric but horrifying tests, the purposes of which remain ambiguous. In one test, Philippe stands an anxious woman in front of a desk crammed with hundreds of phones and tells her she has 20 seconds to locate and answer the one that's ringing.

While Philippe is in charge at work, his private life is secretly in turmoil. His marriage is falling apart because of his inability to give his wife (Julie Gayet) a child, and she is struggling to maintain her sanity in the face of a world she alone seems to acknowledge is monstrous.

The story itself is illusive - it's not till the very end that we grasp the nature of the journey we were following - and Carre Blanc is by no means a conventional narrative, which may frustrate some viewers. But it's a disturbing picture of how fear can turn us into monsters, blind to the fact we are really only destroying ourselves (no doubt a message with resonance in Europe at the moment, where the economic downturn and immigration concerns have contributed to a resurgence of far right groups in mainstream politics).

Strong performances, stunning cinematography by David Nissen, and some very clever production design that does a lot with a little make Carre Blanc an extremely polished piece of work. It's not really what you'd call a fun watch, but it's a film that will get under your skin and have you reflecting on it for a quite a while after you've left the cinema.

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