Review: Sophia Antipolis
For the 24th edition of their annual Rendez-Vous with French Cinema festival, the Film Society of Lincoln Center and UniFrance held a special essay contest, sponsored by Frenchly, inviting young critics to write about a film of their choosing from the lineup. The Grand Prize–winner, receiving a free trip to Paris, is Naomi Keenan O’Shea, who reviewed Virgil Vernier’s Sophia Antipolis.
Sophia Antipolis, the latest film from French director Virgil Vernier, is named after the real-life technopole situated along the French Riviera. Reality and fiction mysteriously blur in this neo-noir-cum-political thriller, which follows the loosely interlaced narratives of three characters; a Vietnamese immigrant enticed by a New Age–style cult; a security guard newly recruited by a right-wing vanguard; and a teenage girl whose best friend is found burned beyond recognition in a derelict warehouse. Centered around the brutal murder of this young woman, the film also culls elements of science-fiction and documentary to produce a visual experience that feels at once uncanny and chillingly familiar. Vernier offers an acute and damning examination of our current crises that touches upon the particularities of the rise of French far-right nationalism, alongside the globalized environmental and embodied effects of capitalism.
Sophia Antipolis opens in faux-documentary fashion: a fixed camera focuses on a young woman as she consults precociously with a plastic surgeon about breast implants. The woman (or girl) eventually concedes to the surgeon’s reluctance to operate on someone so young, but not before trying out various prosthetic implants, squeezing them inside her bra and nodding in considered approval. A series of interview-style consultations proceed, and we hear the doctor resist yet another young woman’s request for surgery, elucidating the ethical issues of the procedure. We then observe as this same doctor demarcates lines along the woman’s naked torso, as if zoning an area of land for construction. Despite his claims to medical ethics, he willingly offers up his personal preference, “as a man,” for operations performed around the areola, as it leaves less visible scarring. Precisely as the surgeon prepares to make his first incision into the woman’s nipple, Vernier cuts away from the cut, and we are braced by the reality that we are beginning a fiction that feels all too real.
In a world where beauty myths reign supreme, and such ideals are purchasable, human bodies become the victims of their own reimagining. The sight of lean, young bodies finds refraction in the images of bodies burned. One man speaks candidly of the third-degree burns he suffered from a work injury (let us reflect for a moment on the cost to life, physical and psychological, that is expended for industry) and the camera sets upon his damaged skin the same gaze it sets upon the taut skin of the female patient, awaiting its own surgical damage. The burning of people and the environment is evoked continually by the presence of a too-bright, bleaching sun; this same sun punctures the film’s midpoint, rising in real time as a woman’s voice-over foretells of a series of human and natural disasters, narrating a disfigured world not far removed from our own.
In this forsaken city, people bereft of meaningful connection engage in strange acts of forged community. In one such scene, a cult leader performs hypnosis on a man before a congregation, coaxing his body into an unyielding rigidity and then placing it in various contrived positions like a life-sized doll. In another, a self-proclaimed militia duct tape their new recruit to the ceiling of an apartment, the camera moving past the scene’s comedy to land in close-up on the man’s viciously perspiring face. Individuals already sacrificed at the altar of capitalism are sacrificed again through the absurd rituals performed by bereaved and fallacious communities. In these moments, Sophia Antipolis moves into its most nuanced critique of our current sociopolitical landscape. In the face of mounting violence, environmental degradation, and insurmountable, private loneliness, Vernier examines the search for cohesion—political, social, spiritual, and corporeal—as a deeply human endeavor.
After the teenage girl’s body is finally identified, her best friend recounts how she renounced her birth name of Sophia. The city of Sophia Antipolis, purpose-built and emblematic of globalized industry, is named after one woman, as if to imbibe its intrinsic lifelessness with human quality. But its naming, crucial to the film and to the death of Sophia, also reveals how the city subsumes human identity within its confines, passing on lifelessness to each of its inhabitants and refracting back to the viewer the proximity of such a world to our own.
Naomi Keenan O’Shea is an Irish writer currently based in Brooklyn. She studied Film and English Literature at Trinity College Dublin.