Crawling the Dark Corners of Parisian Nightlife

in 62nd Berlinale - Berlin International Film Festival

by Nils Saeveras

Atomic Age (L’age Atomique) is an assured and atmospheric first feature from French director Héléna Klotz. The premise may sound somewhat familiar, a story of two young men and their journey into the night and into the underground part of the Paris nightlife. But this hipster take on a ‘coming of age’-story is so rich in atmosphere, it actually manages to recreate the very experience of being young.

The episodic structure works perfectly for a story about nighttime club-crawling. Atomic Age feels light, in the sense that it is never heavy-handed, but it is also quite dark, as the characters belong to the brooding part of the hipster element of youth culture. The film has an insider feel in its portrayal of this environment but, at the same time, the characters remain nicely enigmatic throughout the relatively short running time of 68 minutes.

Other artistic choices also give a certain ambiguity to the film. The overall feeling of the film is very contemporary, but certain elements recall the 1980’s and 90’s, with an extract from a speech by Ronald Reagan in the beginning of the film, and one from George Bush Sr. towards the end.

The film score by the director’s brother Ulysse Klotz, is a dark and energetic electronic soundscape, contributing greatly to the unique mood of the piece. But in the beginning, as Victor (Eliott Paquet) and Rainer (Dominik Wojcik) are on their way to the city on a metro train, they sing along to Elvis Presley’s “In the Ghetto”. Possibly an ironical choice of tune, it is still an introduction to a certain mix of contemporary and slightly retro atmosphere that will remain throughout.

During their night, Victor and Rainer philosophize, flirt and fight. Still, Atomic Age is never a party film, as darkness always lurks in the background. Right underneath the surface, there is also classical literature. There are references to Baudelaire, and in one scene Shakespeare. When Victor picks a fight with a pompous party-goer outside a club, it’s a brilliant modern version of Mercutio throwing insults at Tybalt in “Romeo and Juliet”. At other times, the film itself is a little bit pompous, with protagonists exchanging reflections like “true happiness can only be found in mad love”. That kind of pretentiousness could have been annoying, had not the characters also been so charming in a grubby and unruly kind of way.

Finally, as clubs are closing, Victor and Rainer are on the subway on their way out of the city. Rainer makes Victor decline the advances of a girl, and the question of the real nature of their relationship takes center stage. It is as amusing as it is well staged, when Rainer declares his love for Victor, the pretty boy who has been the more energetic of the two so far, simply has had enough and falls asleep.

The film makes atmospheric, stylish use of minimal light throughout, before finally, there is a shift in the visual style in the final scene. The pair walk through the woods, now apparently on the outskirts of the city. The colors are drained, making the images bleak, possibly foreshadowing the mortality of these young hipsters.

Other first features of this year’s Berlinale Panorama Section also had excellent social commitment and promising new directors, like the Austrian Umut Dag and his film Kuma. Still, no other film had quite the freshness, the visual style and daring storytelling of Atomic Age. A title, incidentally, that is never explained, but still is a good fit with the dark atmosphere of this mood piece. One has the feeling that whatever director Héléna Klotz chooses to do next time, it will probably be another nice surprise.