This week, édition spéciale. Equipped with a bottle of Neuchâtel plonk Domaine des Coccinelles and vague memories of his first year in “la Suisse”, SMD tackled a four-part crime anthology series from over the Röstigraben. Each episode was based on a shocking real-life crime from the Romandie:
- La vallée – The shooting of a teen French car thief after a high speed chase, 2010.
- Sirius – The mass suicide/murder of the sect Order of the Solar Temple, 1994.
- Journal de ma tête – The murder of a couple by their teenage son (probably 2000).
- Prénom: Mathieu – The serial killer Michel Peiry, known as the “Sadist of Romont”, active 1981-1987.
Hopes were high – directors included Jean-Stéphane Bron (Mais im Bundeshuus) and Ursula Meier (L’enfant d’en haut). But it was a third filmmaker, Lionel Baier, whose film really stood out.
Swissness Difficulty Level: Säntis (Intermediate).
Availability: PlaySuisse currently has it with G, F and I subtitles.
1. La vallée (“The Valley”, dir. Jean-Stéphane Bron)
A Maghrebin-French teenager travels from Lyon to Geneva to meet up with organized crime members and steal cars from the Swiss Riviera. Things go wrong, and our anti-hero must fight off a manhunt and get back over the border. Almost all of the movie follows our little French car thief; we’re with him all the way from his flat in Lyon to an empty cabin in the Swiss Alps. The first half of this 50-minute piece is an ultra-realistic depiction of how to steal a high-end BMW from rich Swiss; the second is an allegorical journey into the wilderness.
Worth a watch?
Following Mais im Bundeshuus, this icy thriller made me fall even more in love with director Jean-Stéphane Bron. In spite of the stubborn lack of backstory, and the bizarrely symbolic role of the silent Swiss antagonists in their shiny cars, I related strongly to main character. His outsider status is always total, whether because of his differences to the Swiss skiers or due to his freshly post-adolescent body, ill-clothed to cope with the snowy mountains. Even amongst the other thieves, he’s a geek.
I loved how the sound immerses us in the cars our protagonist loves – the indicator lights and the embryonic purr contrast to the pristine, deadly absoluteness of the Alps and bourgeois villas. Those scenes would have been great in the cinema. The second, allegorical half in the snow jarred a bit when by drifting from in the high standard of realism already set, but all in all La valléé was still good fun, a genuinely thrilling thriller.
Swissness Lab: Transgressing National Boundaries
La vallée is a kind of essay on the differences between lower-class French urban culture with bourgeois Swiss activity only a hundred kilometres away. Bron based the story loosely on a real-life case in which a French teenage car thief was shot dead after a long car chase, so we get insight into one of the natural consequences of having a porous border and a huge wealth gap: organized crime. Beyond that, Bron succeeds in showing us the universal within the specificities of the case. As a foreigner I could relate to being a fish out of water amongst prohibitive prices, clusters of hobbyists in their bubble on their way to some mysterious event, and literally stumbling off the beaten path, lost in an absurdly clean and well-kept world devoid of human-made beauty. I have all my expensive hiking gear now, but once upon a time I too was getting lost on snowy paths in my sopping jeans, wondering what the hell I was doing here…
2. Sirus (dir. Frédéric Mermoud)
An esoteric Templar sect called the Order of Sirius prepares for its bloody day of reckoning. We’re introduced to its elect in a stately old villa up the mountain, including our primary characters: the guru Jorge, his female partner and enabler, his messianic little boy, and a teenage sect member called Hugo. Meanwhile the less enlightened, including Hugo’s parents, toil in the valley on the sect’s farm. By the end of the film most of them will be dead (no spoiler – this is based on real events in 1994). Who, if anyone, will survive?
Worth a watch?
Like most film viewers, I get off on watching the sanctimonious get the bad karma that’s coming to them. Marmoud combines this morbid pleasure with an ever-increasing sense of dread – Sirius isn’t a thriller or a murder mystery, it’s a horror, a “sect-sploitation” flick. If you let yourself wallow in the uncanniness, there are plenty of shivers and grimaces to be had. We search in vain for recognizable infant behaviour in the glassy-eyed child messiah who knows no life outside the sect. The farmhouse-like villa radiates Swiss tradition and attention to detail, as free of impurities as its inhabitants long to be. In its cellar, the “departees” anoint each other’s limbs with lotion, medical syringes neatly laid out in front of them.
The lack of character work beyond relatively superficial sketches may mean that emotional engagement with individual members’ fates is limited; but as you watch those syringes fill with lethal drugs, the certain knowledge that a case like this really happened in Switzerland, and 48 people died, is enough for a considerable injection of the heebie-jeebies.
Swissness Lab: Transgressing Spiritual Boundaries
Yes, in 1994 almost fifty members of the Order of the Solar Temple sect were found dead in two locations in French-speaking Switzerland. The members’ aim was to rise to a higher realm, a “transit” to a planet orbiting the star Sirius. I’ve been living in Switzerland for 12 years, and didn’t know about all this. Some basic clicking around lands you on Rosicrucians, Templars and Crowley; but Sirius foregrounds the an ecological bent to OTS esoterism, with its talk of purification, putrification and toxicity.
Many of the visual cues and some of the characters in Sirius were based on real life, although some intriguing differences emerge. The opening scene in the woods (pictured above), in which four black cars drive a group of cloaked figures into a forest for a ritual, actually riffs off the second massacre which took place a year later in France – the same black cars took sixteen sect members into the forest to imitate their former masters. They died in a star shape, each of them with a shot to the head.
No scene in the film quite captures the mechanism which convinced sect members of their own divine insight. According to a survivor, this was done with a great deal of smoke and mirrors (literally – a member was in charge of special effects), combined with a potent combination of praise (“You are beautiful, you are the reincarnation of someone ancient and powerful”) and disparagement (“The vibrations in this group are wrong, someone here does not believe, there will be no revelation today”). Expectation and groupthink were fuelled by delayed gratification, as the rituals would continue for hours at a time, day after day.
In the original Solar Temple case, Jo Di Mambro (the guru in sunglasses called “Jorge” in the Sirius) teamed up with a homeopathic Belgian doctor called Luc Jouret. Quite the double-team: Di Mambro the Guru, a former con artist turned spiritualist and ritual leader, and Jouret the Grand Master, a clever speaker who could seduce his audience. This contrasts with Sirius, in which Jouret is replaced with a middle-aged female spiritualist, which makes the manipulative force a good deal more feminine and permits an Oedipal undercurrent. Through this character, Mouret also emphasizes the “eso” side which may be more relatable to a mainstream audience. (“Eso” is a common disparaging adjective here for a broad spectrum of mystical beliefs, from the healing power of crystals to reincarnation – seemingly every small village on the way to a hiking path is in possession of a well-to-do house offering obscure alternative medicine).
So why did the Solar Temple make that fatal “transit”? A combination of intense paranoia – and increasing debt. The sect had a distinctly upper-class character aside from the usual down-and-outs; some members had paid Di Mambro a million Francs. An survivor of the sect revealed how he, like many others, put money into Swiss real estate in the country. He owned a small part of a villa and farm, but was only permitted very restricted access of it. The villa where he had his stake had a large swimming pool; but he was not allowed to use it, because his unenlightened vibrations would disturb the water. Their daily lot instead was to cultivate the farm; vegetables were kept as reserve for the apocalypse, and many of them rotted. Meanwhile the elect flew to Canada, Australia, and ate in grand restaurants, trying to attract prospective followers.
Hounded by their creditors and their own personal demons, Di Mambro and Joubert pushed forward the ultimate ritual. As result, a total of 74 Solar Temple members died between 1994 and 1997, in Switzerland and then in follow-up events in France and Quebec. Amongst them were many children.
This rather schlocky documentary (French) details the events of the Solar Temple massacres and some of the messy political aftermath.
This 24 minute archive interview with a very articulate Solar Temple survivor (French) was enthralling from start to finish.
3. Journal de ma tête (“Diary of My Mind”, dir. Ursula Meier)
An eighteen-year-old pupil, Benjamin Feller, visits his local post office to send off a “diary” assignment to his French teacher, Mme Fontanel. Then he visits the local police station to hand himself in. He’s murdered his parents with his father’s military pistol; the “diary” is his confession. Journal de ma tête follows our killer through the justice system, and the French teacher as she struggles to get to grips with her role in the murders.
Worth a watch?
Why did the boy commit the murder? Why did he write the confession to his French teacher? And what will happen when the clouds in his repressed memory break, and he recalls his crime? In the first act these questions are handed the audience on a silver platter, but none of them are then properly mined for drama. Even if we accept the most interesting thing about the crime is its inexplicability, we should at least get more depth on the two main characters to help us care about their arcs.
Meier apparently employed real police staff to add to the realism (some of the procedural scenes could be straight from French cop show Engrenages), but also cast a rather melodramatic French actress, Fanny Ardant, to play Mme Fontanel. The juxtaposition of realist and “romanesque”, for my money, simply didn’t work – I couldn’t suspend my disbelief. Scenes between the two leads, both of whom have been excellent in other stuff, drag on instead of upping the tension. The classical soundtrack, dull debate on the ethics of literature teaching, and opulent psychiatrist’s office all paint an upper-class Oedipal sublimity over a portrait that isn’t clever enough by half, leading to that verdict dreaded by anyone who publishes their diary: boring and pretentious.
Swissness Lab: Transgressing Professional Boundaries
Disclosure: I suspect Ursula Meier cheated in the “Swiss crime” concept, and that irritates me. I couldn’t find anything about teenage double parricide in Romandie, but I did find a fifteen-year-old who stabbed his parents to death in a village in Belfort, France, right on the border to Switzerland – not far from where Meier, who has dual citizenship, grew up. This is annoying, because it somehow casts doubt on the authenticity of another Ursula Meier film I enjoyed, L’enfant d’en haut. Doubly so because I’m a teacher who works in schools like the one portrayed in Journal de ma tête – I’d have liked to see the Mme Fontanel character and the schools scenes done better.
One aspect the film did unwittingly get right was how lonely and unsupported Fontanel appears in the aftermath of the murders – her only relationship seems to be with her pupils. Compared to all other levels of education, we teachers at Gymnasium level (fr: lycée, i.e. Swiss grammar schools) still have an huge amount of freedom to teach without intrusion from the school leadership or other departmental staff. At its best, the system works to make the most of each teacher’s skill set, and to keep us free from the bureaucratic nonsense I hear so much about in the UK. At its worst, you may end up in a team of “every teacher for him- or herself”, left to your own devices with little support or accountability. These are prestigious, well-paid jobs, but stressful; if you get bad luck with colleagues, or if you have a mindset that may lead to social isolation, nobody is going to step in and pull you out of the hole, and that could have consequences for your students.
4. Prénom: Mathieu (dir. Lionel Baier)
A serial killer has just made his first mistake. The mistake is Mathieu R., brutally raped and tortured like the other victims, but then left alive, with clear pictures of the killer’s face locked in his mind. Mathieu’s coming to terms with his trauma – both psychologically and in the context of his small, conservative community – is paralleled with his remembering clues which may lead to the killer’s capture. Family members, neighbours, his girlfriend and the investigating detective offer varying degrees of support and, like the audience, try to understand our hero and root for him to help bring that bastard to justice.
Worth a watch?
Of the four films featured here, Prénom: Mathieu succeeds the most at telling a good story with interesting, believable characters while immersing us in a believable world: small-town, lowland Romandie in the summer of 1986. In Baier’s movie the dialogue is never redundant, scenes never predictable, the pacing well-balanced and both the primary and secondary characters just rounded out enough for the hour we get. All that, plus we get both a genuine insight into the a real-life Swiss crime and an authentic-feeling psychological portrait which exploits the visual medium without relying on a gimmick like a diary voiceover (listening, Ursula Meier?). Brief but creepy fantasy sequences help us relate to the lead characters as they unravel the knots of the case, while drawing us deeper into its horrors.
The only niggles were when the movie said “Check it out, this is the Eighties!” in more obvious ways, briefly breaking the illusion (posters of Duel and Mad Max and microwave meal smalltalk were the worst offenders). For the most part, though, the self-reflective moments are aids rather than hindrances to the drama, such as the careful use of “authentic” case photos and victim names and the clever use of a Walkman as a prop. It’s very smart, pure storytelling. Watch it!
Swissness Lab: Transgressing Intimate Boundaries
There is urgency to this work of fiction that goes beyond a mere dramatic retelling of a Neuchâtelois killer, the “Sadist of Romont”, who abused and killed at least ten teenagers between 1981 and 1987. It tells a truth about life in a way that none of the other films manage to achieve. This beating heart is rooted in the extreme sensitivity taken to document Mathieu’s psychological damage, and the inability of himself nor his often well-wishing friends and family to heal his wounds.
After some scanning around the internet, I stumbled across an article in Le Temps from 2015 which may well explain the reason for this.
To understand, we need to back up to the Carnival of Lausanne, in April 1987. A young man on his way home, Thomas, decides to hitch a ride, but he thumbs the wrong car – Michel Peiry’s victims were typically hitchhikers.
But Thomas is different. He’s a bodybuilder, and, like his fictional counterpart in Prénom, manages to escape through a mixture of brute strength and playing dead.
Thomas’ extensive subsequent testimony is enough to find and charge Peiry within two weeks. The latter is locked up for life.
Fast forward to 2001, a report by a Valais newspaper documenting Thomas’ difficult life. He’s failed his exams, has grave money problems. Back in the Eighties, victims could expect neither psychological support nor financial compensation, and Thomas is paying the price for this.
Fast forward to 2013, a documentary by RTS looking back on the “Sadist of Romont” episode. A blurred-out Thomas is interviewed: “Ma vie est un grand foutoir,” he says – my life is a complete shambles.
Two years later, Thomas, whose bravery and sharp eye stopped a serial killer back in ’87, is convicted and sentenced to four years in prison. He has physically abused three young children in his family.
I don’t know if director Lionel Baier interviewed Thomas while researching Prénom: Mathieu, but the air of authenticity of the portrait is uncanny (props also due to the excellent young actor). In effect, this is not a film about a serial killer. It is a study of a society in which victims of trauma are left to fend for themselves, and those close to them are not given the tools for understanding. The consequences of such a society can be terrifying. The final shot, showing Mathieu on the wrong side of a two-way mirror in the police station, is emblematic of this.
This is the RTS documentary (French) detailing the case of the Sadist of Romont.
Having done the research here and got my review done, I realized there were numerous interviews (available here, all French) with Lionel Baier confirming his intentions with the movie were to thematize the effect of violent crime on victims and their nearest and dearest. The analysis above conforms entirely to Baier’s express intention. It’s very much to his credit he could realize his goals so clearly.
Overall Swissness Lab Report: Adolescent Transgression (Male)
The titles for each of this week’s reviews comes from a theme I found in each of the four movies (“transgression” comes from the Latin for “stepping across”). Another, more bizarre coincidence was also that adolescent boys featured as protagonists in each of the films. Each of these teens is subject to forces beyond both his control and his understanding.
What is it about male teenagers that drew these four Swiss directors to them to illuminate acts of shocking transgression?
(Spoilers afoot! And wild associating from a literature major who believes psychoanalytic theory can sometimes help us read into stories and understand society better! Just sayin’!)
Each of the male adolescents in Ondes de choc are, to an important extent, powerless. This powerlessness is generally imposed on them from the outside, e.g. by a a prison, or an aggressor. They are also, with one exception, impotent. In La vallée, the car thief draws the interest of a young Swiss skiier, but he is unable to act on any attraction because of his oppressive circumstances. Young Hugo in Sirius, meanwhile, has not yet discovered his sexuality. A female sect member hovers for a while, but he’d rather hang around with the little boy character, or cuddle the middle-aged sect leader. As for Mathieu’s encounter with the Sadist of Romont, the background of the accident hinges around his being unable to persuade his girlfriend to go back to a hotel room. After the rape, Mathieu actively pushes away the girl’s advances – “I’ve become toxic.”
These examples suggest that, in order to reach adulthood without harming the natural course of things, the male must be permitted to act out his aggressive side in the form of healthy(-ish) sex activity. The car thief in La vallée sublimates his sex drive into his “art”, but when this sublimation is sabotaged, he cannot continue; unable to respond to the female skiier’s advances, the forest consumes him. Hugo, the sect member in Sirius, has not yet realized his sex drive; if he is saved from the flames, it is because he remains a child (if he had fucked the sect leader when she came on to him, he would be dead, as in this inverted world the “normal” are permitted “transit”). Mathieu, the rapist’s victim in Baier’s film, has his potency taken from him, and his future in society looks troubled. How will his aggressions emerge, if not that way?
This early scene of Prénom: Mathieu compels us to violate the victim in several ways. We physically penetrate his iris, witness his intimate trauma fantasy, see him naked, and are even put in the shoes of his torturer (the last shot shows the latter’s hand reaching out).
The exception is Benjamin Feller of Journal de ma tête. For a brief time Benjamin is granted symbolic potency in the form of a gun, but he is unable to contain it, and shoots his mum and dad dead. Society must come in and contain his aggression. But when he leaves prison, there are unmistakable signs that Benjamin wants to fuck his old French teacher. Their embrace at his parents’ grave is passionate, weird and Oedipal, but also somehow a good sign for Benjamin that he can function in society (we can tolerate you just wanting to bang more “mature” ladies, there are websites for that…).
One more thing. Switzerland is notable for conscripting its young men, at the age of eighteen, into the army. (When Michel Peiry, the real-life Sadist of Romont, was arrested, it was during his yearly army training.) Trained to use deadly weapons, these young conscripts will never find release by fighting in a war; the country is constitutionally neutral, its troops themselves impotent. Perhaps for that reason the Swiss unconsciously dread their male adolescent youth, and fantasize about their containment.