Young French soldiers Marine (Soko), Aurore (Ariane Labed) and Fanny (Ginger Roman) fly into holiday island Cyprus for ‘decompression’ (post-combat debriefing) after their tour in Afghanistan. Stationed in a five-star hotel, the women must overcome reliving the horrors of their experience and sexism from fellow male counterparts before they get to fly home.
The opening shot of Aurore on the plane flying out of Afghanistan evokes a short-lived sense of relief. Obviously the real drama lies ahead, but speaking to any military personnel about that moment on the plane out, they will tell you there is still a feeling of unease until you are well clear of the warzone. The Coulin sisters capture this well.
The film then changes location with the drive to the Cypriot hotel, while the sense of alienation grows. These soldiers are ‘out of danger’ but placed in even more peril by their leaders in a place of supposed ‘rest and relaxation’ (R&R). It’s this fascinating and quite drastic comparison – as holidaymakers party 24/7 by the pool – that makes for a heady impact. Waiting for the fallout keeps the momentum far from slack and the tension ever coiled.
Thankfully, the film-makers refrain from portraying the obvious tabloid reaction between military personnel and civilians/locals in such an environment, which shows a level of maturity for the subject matter and a respect for those who fight for their country – though the anti-war cynicism is never hidden in the dialogue either. In fact, the idea of never allowing the soldiers to fully ‘unwind’ interestingly puts the situation in a permanent state of incarceration, ripe for character study.
Although events on the battlefield are gradually revealed as things progress, through solider accounts and computerised simulation, there is still an intriguing veil of mystery as to what actually happened in the conflict zone. Coupled with the fish out of water scenario at the hotel – which they are ordered not to leave, the Coulin sisters do not have to overdramatise events at all, letting their characters’ knowing glances, untold horrors and quiet frustrations cultivate. This gives an almost docu-style feel to the work, all bathed in muted cinematography.
The understated acting allows the character’s haunting looks to prevail too, until things chip away at their resolve then tensions spill over and effect redresses the flimsy balance. Soko and Labed put on a defiant front in the roles, each compelling to watch – individual in the flicker of their real personalities (they are old school friends) but unified by military conditioning. It’s the latter that both crushes their spirit and is their saviour when things get ugly, creating another powerful premise for the Coulin sisters to touch on.
The Stopover may have female protagonists at the fore, but the Coulin sisters do not dwell on gender differences, rather, attempt to portray the effects universally. This is a film about the aftereffects of war on the individual – the females’ experiences are merely, deliberately singled out to examine this highly important issue. This makes for superior film-making and a hidden gem at LFF this year.