Director: Aude Léa Rapin
Stars: Adèle Haenel, Jonathan Couziníe, Antonia Buresi
There are multiple ghosts haunting Aude Léa Rapin’s narrative feature debut which, on the heels of a mixed reception at Cannes in 2019, has belatedly surfaced on MUBI in the UK. A quixotic mockumentary of sorts, Heroes Don’t Die begins with Joachim (Jonathan Couziníe) excitedly telling us of a strange encounter he’s just had on the streets of Paris; that a stranger mistook him for a Serbian soldier named Zoran who died on August 21st, 1983 – the exact date of Joachim’s birth.
Zoran is our first ghost, haunting the film which then grows out of this idea of Joachim as his returned soul. He, along with his friend Alice (Adèle Haenel) and a small crew, travel to Bosnia to find Zoran’s grave, believing that if they do they’ll have about proven the existence of reincarnation. The second ghost, it transpires, is Joachim himself. Through heated conversation with Alice, we learn that he has a heart condition and could die at any time once past the age of 35; a birthday that in the timeline of the film is rapidly approaching. We’re prompted to question whether Joachim’s happenstance encounter in Paris is true, or whether this trip is a fool’s errand spooled out of his own mortal anxieties. Whatever the case, Joachim becomes increasingly convinced it is true, to the point of appearing possessed.
More ghosts are abound as this small group zero-in on their destination. Fraught from language barriers, they converse with the locals in broken English and, in the process, stir up memories of the Bosnian/Serbian conflicts of the early ’80s, the accompanying genocide, and the multitudinous souls lost in the crossfire. One such local takes them out to the bobsleigh run built for the Olympics. The mood sobers up quick when he points out that the encroaching treeline is a minefield. Suddenly the past exists in the present. The war is there and here.
It’s a moment that captures succinctly part of the struggle people appear to have with Heroes Don’t Die, which frames itself as a jolly caper or comedy of errors only to lurch suddenly into moments of heavy contemplation. The tonal gear shifts come hard and fast. One minute we’re jovially invading Joachim’s privacy in the shower, the next we’re pacing through a graveyard. It’s easy to see how, for some, Rapin’s film can appear to crassly trivialise a dark time in the region’s history. But I don’t think that’s the intention here. Instead, it feels as though Rapin is challenging – rightly or wrongly – our preconceptions of what a film like this ought to feel like. Hers is a road movie away from preconceived expectations. Her results aren’t always particularly graceful, but its an attention-grabbing ramble into the unknown.
Her cast ably make this more palatable. Couziníe (who has the look of a young Tom Hanks possessed by Peter Sarsgaard) makes Joachim a gangling, energetic, sometimes even misguidedly naive presence. Haenel, meanwhile, seems actually incapable of putting in a bad performance. She has a considerable hand in helping Heroes Don’t Die to course-correct following any given chaotic swerve. For those new to her work thanks to Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Heroes Don’t Die presents a more relaxed showcase for her natural comedic flex.
Toward the end, a final ghost is revealed, one that’s been in plain sight all along; the truth itself. In a surprisingly tender and tactile scene, Rapin invokes folie a deux; a madness shared by two. In the process, she provides us a cobblestone hotbox in which a belief becomes truth when two people share it. The smallest of micro-climates. Here, past and present feel the most intermingled, while Rapin also manages to wryly invert the assumed roles of a May/December romance. I appreciate that I’m talking around events cryptically here, but for those who want to seek this one out, this strange denouement makes for a fitting and surprisingly heartfelt non-ending to a film that, in the main, only coquettishly flirts with sincerity. I will be interested to see Rapin’s next move.