From its very first moments, writer-director Daniel Hoesl’s Soldate Jeannette exhibits a practiced but seemingly effortless control that signals a filmmaker with utmost confidence in his material. The opening scene’s key object – a chic red dress – feels entirely at odds with the high register in which the wearer of said dress and the man selling it to her speak of it, as does the thumping electronic music that starts playing seconds later. The contrast is appealing, though, and gives a strong indication of the stylistic melange that awaits in Daniel Hoesl’s debut feature.
As funny as Dogtooth and as silently observational as Bestiaire, the film follows that intriguing cold open with brief fragments of its heroine’s karate classes and a long scene in which she snores loudly through a revival-house screening of C.T. Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. Even funnier than this latter sequence is a telephone conversation ending with Fanni telling whoever’s on the other end of the line, “Too bad you’re not here; I’m going to watch this funny movie called Jeanne Dielman.” That Chantal Akerman’s three-and-a-half hour film about a trick-turning single mother from 1975 is referred to at all, let alone as “funny” and in such an off-the-cuff way, speaks to Hoesl’s faith in his audience to pick up on his subtler cues—not all of which are comedic. (That faith was apparently somewhat misplaced, as some 20 people walked out of my screening.) Long shots of machinery in action and equally protracted glimpses of nature hint at Hoesl’s fascination with the material and mechanical means by which we live in and and alter the world around us.
The actual plot has to do with two women, neither of whom are named Jeannette, and their similar world-weariness. But the film is most memorable as a collection of individual moments whose staying power comes more from visual finesse and thematic subtlety than their impact on the loose narrative. The best of these takes place in a pitch-black forest lit only by a woman’s flashlight. Disorienting, visceral, and even a little frightening, its use of POV camerawork brings to mind The Blair Witch Project and helps make the sequence – which is entirely wordless – the perfect distillation of everything that works so well in Soldate Jeannette: little comes of it in a narrative sense, but as a self-contained moment it’s wholly immersive.