Cannes 2023 review: Lost Country (Vladimir Perišić)

Lost Country isn’t the first film about the children of a monstrous regime, nor is it the best, but the way it delves into the psychology of the situation is handled with care and Perišić’s steady hand.”

Slobodan Milošević was the head of state of Serbia for almost a decade and a key figure during the Balkan Wars, which eventually led him to be found guilty of crimes against humanity by the The Hague war tribunal. Many in the Serbian population didn’t agree with his politics though, with frequent anti-government and anti-war protests held during his reign. One such rally, the student protest of 1996, is the backdrop for Serbian director Vladimir Perišić’s second feature film Lost Country, his second Semaine de la Critique berth after his 2009 debut Ordinary People. That film examined a moral dilemma in an unspecified time and place, but Lost Country clearly pinpoints its own dilemma, albeit with fictional characters.

Stefan (Jovan Ginic) is in high school in late November 1996, in the aftermath of national elections. The news is rife with talks of election fraud on the part of Milošević’s ruling socialist party, but Stefan doesn’t pay much attention. Maybe because he is too busy with training for the water polo team or the budding interest from Hana, a girl in his school, but maybe also in part because he doesn’t want to see the truth: his mother (Jasna Djuričić) is a spokesperson for the party and deeply entrenched in the fraud. Stefan’s mother shows up embezzling votes in magazine cartoons, and slowly but surely his high school friends and water polo teammates start to shun and ostracize him. As student protests against the election results rise in fervour, Stefan is torn between his mother and his friends while he becomes increasingly isolated before taking a dramatic decision.

Just as with Ordinary People, Lost Country is again co-written by Alice Winocour, like Perišić a former student of the La Fémis film school in Paris. Oddly enough, it is the screenplay that is Lost Country‘s weakest part, in particular in how it tries to draw its brooding protagonist. Stefan has a loyalty towards both his mother and his mates, but he himself seems rather apolitical, and unfortunately Ginic is rather unconvincing in his portrayal, his character remaining an enigma for most of the film. Djuričić, ironically best known for her performance as a Bosnian translator trying to save her family from Milošević’s Serbian aggression in the Srebrenica massacre, embodies the duality of a corrupt and toxically patriotic politician as well as a loving mother perfectly, even if she is given too little to work with. The problem that Lost Country faces is that it wants to answer the question “What do you do if a family member is the face of facism?“, but the audience will have already made up its mind about this, especially because the fascist government in question is so well-known and despised.

What holds the film together is Perišić’s assured direction, steadily pacing Stefan’s brooding arc to its desperate conclusion. Helped by cinematographer duo Sarah Blum and Louise Botkay’s period-appropriate lensing, which evokes the ’90s in its soft images and muted colour palette, Perišić relies on his imagery to tell the story. A necessity, given his protagonist is such a closed-off individual, but it lends Lost Country a natural flow that makes it an easy watch despite the story being one of unease. This is underlined by Stefan increasingly becoming isolated within the frame, even in some of the student demonstrations he attends. He’s there, but never really part of it, which hits home with the film’s central theme. Lost Country isn’t the first film about the children of a monstrous regime, nor is it the best, but the way it delves into the psychology of the situation is handled with care and Perišić’s steady hand. Whether it hits home with an audience is another matter.