Published Mar 12, 2015Before Michel Hazanavicius won the nostalgic hearts of solipsistic Oscar voters with his astonishingly facile and oft-incompetent cinematic masturbation piece The Artist, he made some serviceable simplistic James Bond spoofs. These highly crude farces suited his limited vision and scope quite well, operating on a bevy of broad gags and superficial observations. Unfortunately, with the prestige of the Oscar, Hazanavicius has attempted to legitimize himself with a painfully strained and sloppy update of the 1948 Montgomery Clift war drama, The Search.
This update shifts the narrative from an internment camp in WWII to the 1999 Russian invasion of Chechnya. A boy (Abdul Khalim Mamutsiev) is left alone with his infant brother after his parents are murdered by Russian soldiers. Finding himself in a detention camp, he comes across the surly Red Cross worker Helen (Annette Bening) before fleeing into the streets and manoeuvring himself into the home of EU human rights worker Carole (Berenice Bejo). Incidentally, Carole is writing a report about the conflict that requires interviewing Helen, who, later in the film, winds up employing Raissa (Zukhra Duishvili), a girl who is looking for her younger brother. What the audience knows that Helen doesn't is that Raissa's younger brother is staying with Carole.
Splitting up this contrived narrative even further — and reiterating the "Russians are all immoral ruthless killers" ethos of the film — is the story of Kolia (Maksim Emelyanov), a soldier who's degraded and demoralized to the point of becoming little more than a murdering robot. He's referred to as a "faggot" repeatedly and is coaxed at gunpoint to strip and explore his sexuality with another soldier, which highlights the valid, albeit highly exploitative and insincere, politics of The Search quite overtly. In theory, this triptych could work if handled by a director with a bit of vision and purpose.
Hazanavicius struggles with even the simplest aspects of a dramatic narrative, though. The style is wildly inconsistent, vacillating between twee melodrama and gritty violence without any aesthetic or structural division between the two, and his approach to capturing horror and woe is to have the actors scream their emotions at the screen; there are far too many scenes where the camera is left lingering on an actor trying their damnedest to cry or yell just for the sake of doing so.
Similarly, each character seems like nothing more than a rote cipher. Carole is merely a vessel of traditionalist conservative beliefs, representing the working woman that's softened by the realization that she really just needs to have a child in her life, while Kolia is never asked to be anything more than a reactionary device for the overt politicking of the film. It leaves everything feeling very cold and incidental, regardless of Hazanavicius's attempts to milk emotions from scenes of the boy drawing pictures of his dead parents or repeatedly crying while being endlessly questioned by the adults around him.
At the end of it all, there's really nothing to save this awkward plea for legitimacy. The Search ultimately reveals Hazanavicius' shortcomings as a serious filmmaker; he might be better served by sticking to broad comedy or working within the lexicon of mainstream television.