Cannes 2015 – The Wakhan Front (Clément Cogitore)

The only French film in the Critics’ Week competition, war drama The Wakhan Front focuses on a small squad of French soldiers assigned to control a remote valley in the Wakhan Corridor in Northern Afghanistan. Captain Antarès Bonassieu (Jérémie Renier) and his men see very little action, other than dealing with the slightly hostile villagers that they have to protect. One night, however, two of the men stationed in an outpost outside of the camp disappear without a trace. This gets Bonassieu and the rest of the men on edge, and when a third man vanishes as well, the captain starts to slowly unravel. When a local warlord named Sultan shows up demanding the return of missing fighters from his side, it is clear that mysterious forces are at work. Will Bonassieu be able to hold things together, or go totally off the deep end?

The Wakhan Front is a slow-burn war thriller that takes its time to cook up the mystery. Still, built on a strong performance by Renier (by far the biggest name in the cast), the little drops of information and plot dropped in by director Clément Cogitore in his feature debut manage to hold the audience’s interest for well over an hour of its running time. The problem is that Cogitore himself doesn’t seem to know what happened to the missing soldiers when he tries to wrap up the proceedings and solve the mystery. A link to a Qur’an verse is thrown in for good measure, and for a while that seems to be the right path, if somewhat implausible. This thread is then suddenly abandoned to create an even bigger mess, making for a very confusing and unsatisfactory ending of the film.

And it’s a shame, because for a good while The Wakhan Front is an enjoyable film, with strong performances and powerful cinematography that ups the tension through frequent use of night-vision camera work. Cogitore shows that he can direct an action sequence and hold an audience. It’s just the screenplay that fails him in the last hour, a screenplay Cogitore himself was also co-responsible for, so he takes part of the blame. The core of the story is Bonassieu slowly going mad as the situation spins out of control, but it would be nice to have an idea what is driving the action. A little ambiguity never hurts, but neither does a little bit of grounding. Nor is it very believable that a trained soldier like Bonassieu obviously is would let himself be taken to such a point. Applying logic when the going gets tough certainly isn’t his strong suit, and one has to wonder how he made it to the rank of captain.

Ultimately, The Wakhan Front is a film that has much promise, but eventually fails to reach a satisfying end. A promising start too for the director, but perhaps next time he should let somebody else write the script.