For many years I have suffered from tinnitus, which is a great Edgar Allan Poe-ish word for “ringing in the ears.” (I know now we’re supposed to say we “live with” conditions and syndromes, but I suffer from mine, thanks anyway.) Having tinnitus creates an unreal soundscape; for me, along with various pulses and crackles, I often think I hear conversations or music happening somewhere. Or maybe there are conversations and music happening—who can tell, with all the noise going on?
In Alice Winocour’s Disorder, the protagonist Vincent suffers (really suffers) from much more than just tinnitus. This military veteran has PTSD and hearing loss, and his shaky nerves make it unlikely he’ll see active duty again. One thing that drew me into Winocour’s odd film is the sonic depiction of how Vincent hears the world: The soundtrack hums with high-frequency whirring and insectoid buzz, which is all the more maddening to Vincent because he often has to pay close attention to dangers that might be approaching.
Vincent (played with typical physical commitment by Belgian hulk Matthias Schoenaerts, from A Bigger Splash) is at loose ends in France. He’s still in the service, but waiting to hear whether he’ll be approved to return to Afghanistan. His Special Forces buddy Denis (Paul Hamy) pulls him into some bodyguard work at the fancy estate of a Lebanese-French businessman. Vincent is hired to watch over the businessman’s wife Jessie (German star Diane Kruger) and young son Ali. It sounds like babysitting, but might be more than that. While working security at the family’s party, Vincent gleans that Jessie’s husband may be involved in international arms dealing, and is probably in some kind of trouble.
In one sense, what follows is a suspense picture. Jessie and her son are alone in their big house—the estate is called “Maryland,” also the film’s original title—and Vincent stands ready to protect them. But what makes this situation fresh is the way Winocour focuses not on Vincent’s heroism but on his vulnerability and pain. When people talk about the need for more female voices in film directing, the conversation sometimes casually assumes that the purpose of such an initiative is to tell women’s stories. And yes, bring those on—but the cinema needs women making movies about everyone and everything, including, sometimes, men.
In that sense, Disorder is fascinatingly thorny in its depiction of a damaged protagonist. We see that, in his simmering, inarticulate way, Vincent would like to be the hero of this story. He sees the beautiful woman and the helpless boy and he wants to save them, but his own runaway anxieties may be putting them in harm’s way. Although the threat against them is real, Jessie and her son are not the people who truly need saving; the film quietly notes that with her wealth, Jessie can escape fairly easily. Vincent’s the one who needs help, but his warrior fantasies about how he is going to save the day and make himself whole are flawed. Vincent might fantasize about being with Jessie, but he can’t really connect with mother and son, not the way his friend Denis can. Vincent can only relate, touchingly, with the family dog; maybe the dog hears the same fight-or-flight-inducing sounds that Vincent hears.
At times in Disorder—and especially in its mysterious final moments—we are left to wonder whether what we see is altered by Vincent’s jangled perspective. The soundtrack suggests as much, for the previously mentioned tinnitus-related reasons (the sound design bleeds seamlessly into the musical score by Gesaffelstein, aka techno wizard Mike Lévy). Certainly the movie is not realistic in the way it depicts a stake-out or the aftermath of a violent incident on a public street. But Winocour is doing a different kind of movie. Disorder generates actual suspense, but—without adopting the mode of grand statement-making—Winocour also alludes to the profitable business of war, and the damage done by that business, and how the damage divides along class lines. And, most hauntingly, what war perpetuates in men. Disorder, Not rated. Opens at Varsity Theater, Fri., Sept. 16.