Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
THE SEARCH | 149 min | Unrated
Written and Directed by: Michel Hazanavicius
Starring: Bérénice Bejo, Annette Bening, Maksim Emelyanov, Abdul Khalim Mamutsiev, Zukhra Duishvili
“This is SAD! Everyone is SAD! YOU have to be SAD! This is SERIOUS! This is IMPORTANT! Isn’t it terrible about Chechnya?! Darkness! No parents!” These are the statements shouted at the audience when they watch director Michel Hazanavicius’ sadness porn/ “rubble film” homage, THE SEARCH. While this is the exact opposite in every regard to his previous features, THE ARTIST, OSS 117: CAIRO NEST OF SPIES and OSS: LOST IN RIO, that fascinating juxtaposition adds zero interest past THE SEARCH’s 20 minute mark – yet there are still 2 hours and 9 minutes to go.
THE SEARCH begins and ends in the same place: somewhere in the rubble of 1999’s Russian-Chechen war, where a young Russian soldier is capturing the war’s brutality on a camcorder. From the long shot of a dead cow with a bloated stomach (a harbinger that what you’re about to see will be also be bloated), to the harassing and brutal execution of town residents, we see that Chechnya is an awful place. #Duh. However, there’s hope, in the form of one of the town’s youngest residents, doe-eyed blonde cutie Hadji (Abdul Khalim Mamutsiev), who’s gone mute (because of course he has) thanks to the shock of seeing his mom and dad gunned down. After abandoning his baby brother to the care of a trustworthy adult, Hadji escapes to a nearby town where he meets Carole (played by Hazanavicius’ real-life wife Bérénice Bejo, in a role I’m sure was written for her to show her range), an angelic NGO worker documenting human rights violations. She offers the traumatized nine-year-old a quiet respite in her apartment, attempting to find out all she can. Meanwhile and unbeknownst to Carole, her abrasive contact at an orphanage for Chechen refugees, Helen (Annette Bening, in what some would call a brave performance because she doesn’t wear makeup) has been in touch with Raissa (Zukhra Duishvili), Hadji’s older sister who’s been fearlessly scouring the countryside looking for her brother. And if that’s not enough for you, Hazanavicius goes back in time to show a monster being created with Kolia (Maksim Emelyanov), a young Russian man busted for drugs who’s forced to enroll in the military.
“Rubble films” sprung out of the post-WWII era and typically showcase the ravages on war-stricken communities, countries or people. They’re gritty and depressing – qualities THE SEARCH has in spades. Though this deals with the topic of guilt that nothing more was done about the Russian-Chechen conflict, and the elements to qualify this as a “rubble film” are there, Hazanavicius fails at delivering something genuinely impacting. Who’s held responsible? According to this film, everyone. It doesn’t let us forget what horrible, selfish people we are for turning a blind eye. Treating the audience in such a careless, unflinching regard isn’t the way to get the message across.
Perhaps the film’s greatest offense is how it stirs up such moral indignation in a such a frustrating manner, since there’s a way this could have been done with greater craft and care. The film’s few moments of levity are also twisted into something bad where the audience laughs at how ludicrous these characters sound. After receiving a call from her nagging mom, Carole turns to orphan Hadji and says something to effect of “at least you don’t have to deal with your mom calling.” WTF?! It’s such an inauthentic thing for Carole to have said out loud, let alone thought. Instead of subtleties, Hazanavicius has Carole and Helen dose out white guilt on two separate and astounding occasions – once when Carole is seeking advice from an incredibly insensitive Helen on how to connect with the orphan, and again when Carole tries to relate to girlfriends trying to find levity in the war’s chaos. The only time Hazanavicius comes close to being understated is when Carole gives her speech at the United Nations – to a handful of people, not a packed house. Even then, he fumbles as the close-ups of the bored attendants are used as obvious buttons in the scene. Plus, the scenes between Carole and the war’s victims are gratuitous, manipulative and pushy.
Though Hazanavicius adds some artistry to the bloodbath (attempting, but failing, to “out-Joe Wright” Joe Wright with his lone continuous take on the battlefront), he doesn’t hit his mark. Feeling 40 minutes too long and with a preachy narrative that delivers messages in a laughably clumsy, ham-fisted manner, THE SEARCH is something audiences shouldn’t seek out. Trying desperately to be provocative (it’s not), the only feeling it leaves you with is indignation that you wasted any time on such an insulting mess.
THE SEARCH plays ColCoa on April 23. It has no US distributor.