Berlinale 2024 review: Langue Étrangère (Claire Burger)

Brilliantly subversive and genuinely poignant in both form and content, Langue Étrangère proves to be one of the year’s most layered and poetic dramas.”

Language has a tendency to carry many different meanings depending on the intention of the speaker and the perception of the receiver. In France, they refer to their relationship with Germany as a “partnership”. In contrast, in Germany it is called a “friendship” – a small difference that piques the curiosity of the protagonists in Langue Étrangère, since it represents an intriguing divide between their two cultures, which could be considered quite similar on a technical level but have many differences that this film explores in vivid detail. Telling the story of a pair of foreign exchange students who take turns visiting each other at their homes in Germany and France, Claire Burger crafts an impeccable and heartfelt drama that is as tender as it is dynamic, exploring the relationship between two young women who have only started to understand the world that surrounds them but have their lives thrown into disarray as they develop an unlikely friendship that reveals as much about themselves as it does their culture. Throughout the film, Burger examines language as not only a tool of basic communication, but also as a powerful political and social device, particularly when it comes to different meanings of the same words. Brilliantly subversive and genuinely poignant in both form and content, Langue Étrangère proves to be one of the year’s most layered and poetic dramas.

From the start, Burger makes sure to emphasize the role that cultural differences will play in this story. Like her previous work, Langue Étrangère is defined by her extraordinary sense of humanity, combined with an interest in culture as a social construct that guides the lives of her complex protagonists. At a glance it seems like this film is primarily aiming to be a tender comedy about two introverted young women going from adversaries to friends as a result of overcoming their differences, both linguistic and in terms of their radically varying personalities.  However, as the layers of this film begin to reveal themselves, we start to realize that there is something deeper than these vaguely humorous interactions between two people who start as rivals but soon find common ground, mostly through shared goals and a growing understanding of one another. Far from a superficial comedy about culture clash (although these moments are genuinely funny and add a sense of levity to a film that can sometimes be quite sombre), the film makes an effort to take a promising idea and expand on it, exploring not only the charming cultural differences between these characters but also emphasizing the connections formed in the process of becoming familiar with one another and their origins.  

However, as compelling as the cultural content and its underlying political framework in the film may be, Langue Étrangère is far too interesting to only focus on something this obvious. There are several layers to this film, but they all inevitably circle back to the subject of identity, a theme that recurs throughout the story. The process of the relationship between Fanny and Lena going from a platonic friendship to something much deeper does not take long, and while it is obvious from their first encounter, the journey to get to that point is fascinating. The film is designed as two interweaving coming-of-age stories, focused on these two characters as they undergo their voyage of self-discovery, which is complicated by their arrival in each other’s lives. Burger uses the cultural differences between the girls as a means to explore themes of identity and sexuality, since they currently exist in that ambiguous space between adolescence and adulthood, which is the point where one starts to truly get to know themselves through questioning those intimidating and sometimes terrifying emotions. Burger is not the first to explore these themes, but in using cultural differences as the framework she makes some fascinating observations. How a complete outsider views someone can be quite revealing, which is something that this film examines incredibly well, using it as the foundation for a compelling narrative.

One of the benefits of telling a coming-of-age story on screen is that a director can potentially be responsible for discovering a new and exciting talent, or helping someone slightly more established continue on their acting journey. In the case of Langue Étrangère, the film is anchored by two phenomenal performances from a pair of young actors that turn in some of the best work of the year so far. Lilith Grasmug, who had her breakthrough in Thunder last year, portrays Fanny, a conflicted young woman questioning every aspect of her identity, from her ethnic background to her sexuality. She is joined by newcomer Josefa Heinsius in her acting debut, as the more self-assured but equally troubled Lena. Both actors deliver stunning performances that are nuanced, complex and filled with details that can only come from a profound connection between a performer and the material. Burger extracts tremendous performances from the two young leads, who capture our attention through their remarkable chemistry and their ability to make every decision these characters make seem authentic and understandable. They’re aided by a substantial cast that includes acting legends Nina Hoss and Chiara Mastroianni as their mothers. While the film does showcase the two leads more prominently, both Hoss and Mastroianni are delivering beautiful performances as women doing their best to instil a sense of pride in their daughters, not realising that the girls are on their own journey that will likely deviate far from what their parents intended. As both a social drama and character study, Langue Étrangère is an incredible work that makes exceptional use of its actors in bringing these individuals to life.

Burger is not a filmmaker who intends to craft overly complex, labyrinthine narratives. The brilliance of her work comes in the simplicity, and Langue Étrangère is the perfect embodiment of this quality. There are still many layers to this film in spite of its straightforward approach, but it never comes across as being overly verbose or inappropriately ambitious. It is a film that is conscious of its politics, and explores these themes without becoming too dense or didactic – instead of focusing on the academic side of its main ideas, it instead chooses to approach these ideas through a more personal, intimate perspective. The political discourse works in tandem with the social commentary to create a portrait of two young women who use defiance and civil disobedience as a method for finding themselves and questioning their own identity. They challenge the status quo in small but significant ways, which conveys the image of these rebellious teenagers navigating a world they have barely even begun to comprehend while developing their own identity, becoming radicalized in the process. Defined by two exceptional performances, and directed with precision by a filmmaker whose intentions were simply to craft an original coming-of-age story that adds depth to discussions around cultural differences and identity, Langue Étrangère is a steadfast and poignant examination of the perils of growing up, and the importance of forging meaningful connections while on this challenging but worthwhile journey.

Image copyright: Les Films de Pierre