IFFR 2023 review: La tour (Guillaume Nicloux)

“For a bit of bleak fun with a socio-political and existential slant you could do worse than this exquisitely shot dystopian piece of misanthropy.”

What does it feel like to die?” A bit of a dour question on its own, but out of the mouth of a child this line becomes downright bleak. But Guillaume Nicloux’ latest film La tour isn’t very upbeat anyway. A film about the human disconnect under dire circumstances that lacks a connection to the humans it depicts, La tour is a bit of a head-scratcher. As a reflection on mankind’s ability to shed its humanity and sink deep in order to self-preserve, the film is original and appropriately dark. But without building a bond with any of the characters, their demise is unaffecting, leaving La tour a film to ‘enjoy’ (for lack of a better word) for the depths it plunges its characters in, but one that you shrug off easily once the credits roll.

La tour‘s premise is certainly original, although hints of Alex Garland’s Annihilation shine through. One morning the residents of a high-rise find that their building is enveloped in a pitch black void. It only takes one brave soul to realize that the void is dangerous: it destroys everything and everyone that goes in. Contact with the outside world is impossible, so the residents are left to fend for themselves. For those of us with a pessimistic view of humanity, this all predictably goes south quickly. Gangs are formed, resources are hoarded, and the micro-society inside the building devolves rapidly into a barbarian state. There are three time jumps (five months, two years, five years) that illustrate the decline, while detaching the audience from any of the characters, the inhabitants sinking deeper with every jump. Voodoo-like religions are formed, sexual favours are traded for food, and one group starts breeding to supply themselves with meat (luckily we don’t actually get to see that). Elsewhere children are born and raised, but any spark of hope is snuffed out in a dark ending that offers a glimpse of humanity on the part of the only character that stands out before the film appropriately cuts to black.

With our own recent history of involuntary lockdowns and staying inside for prolonged times, it is not hard to relate to the people in the titular tower, but Nicloux gives us spare characterizations and not much of a narrative, so any feeling for them quickly goes out the window and into the void. Lack of a focal character (Angèle Mac’s coming the closest) drains La tour of any possible involvement by the audience, whose empathy is probably more based in the shared experience of the past few years than in anything shown on screen.

Which isn’t to say that La tour is not enjoyable on a certain dark level. The actions of the various groups within the building are certainly over-the-top, but rooted in a misanthropic point of view that unfortunately lies closer to the truth than we would like to admit if the pandemic era is anything to go by. La tour‘s dystopia is real enough to be a believable reflection of how people would act (read: selfish) even when realizing that in the end everybody is going to die. Leave it to humans to make that a struggle to ensure who will die last. The film is morbid to a fault, but within its morbidity is the sinister pleasure of watching people reach the lowest levels in the name of self-preservation. If Nicloux had infused the film with a little more human drama La tour would have greater impact, and one doesn’t need a keen eye to read its view on French race relations, loudly broadcast. But for a bit of bleak fun with a socio-political and existential slant you could do worse than this exquisitely shot (a grainy black and white courtesy of cinematographer Christophe Offenstein) dystopian piece of misanthropy.