There are two Sophias in French director Virgil Vernier’s clever, cunning, chilling fifth feature. The first is its setting, the eponymous “Sophia Antipolis,” a technology park in the south of France, a place self-consciously designed as an experiment in social engineering, where an international community of professionals would, it was hoped, create an environment of innovation beneficial to the computing, pharma and biotech companies it comprised.
The second Sophia is the teenage girl whose charred remains are found in a deserted area of the park, and whose grisly death becomes only the most dramatic emblem of the thrumming paranoia and low-level despair that instead characterize the region, according to Vernier’s unsettling vision. This is a mercilessly pessimistic appraisal of the attempt to prefabricate a society along idealistic but corporate lines, which results in diversity without integration and a rootless modernity that exists in isolation of history, and all its lessons of wisdom. Which in Greek, of course, is sophia.
A fascinating tension exists between the antique, grainy, warm aesthetic of Simon Roca and Tom Harari’s 16mm photography and the slicing, hyper-modern sterility of the film’s mood. A cast of non-professionals adds a further layer of docudrama verisimilitude (Vernier’s filmography includes both fiction and nonfiction features and shorts), as does the absence of any score or musical signposting. This dispassionate, alien’s-eye sensibility makes “Sophia Antipolis” an absorbing yet uncanny experience: Here, even the most outlandish of scenarios seems plausible, factual, and the quasi-fantastical and the horrific are bedded so deeply into the strip-lit banal that it’s hard to tell where one ends and other begins.
This is a place where 16-year-olds lie about their age in order to get breast implants. In the film’s arresting opening, a series of young women are being taken through the pre-screening procedures for breast augmentation by a smooth-talking plastic surgeon. He draws outlines of the incision points in marker on one girl’s naked torso; to another he offers some words of advice as she tries on different implant sizes and admires her new synthetic profile in the mirror.
Simulation, artificiality and performativity become common themes as Vernier and Mariette Desert’s fitful, elusive screenplay skips like a stone across the surface of several lives in this contemporary dystopia. An Asian mail-order bride, recently widowed and left with an apartment, a modest income and nothing to do, starts attending the meetings of a local cult, where a charismatic leader puts people into hypnotic trances. Soon she is recruiting new followers as she herself was recruited, following the same script, knocking on doors looking for similarly vulnerable people.
Across town a young black man takes to his training as a security guard and is inducted into an unofficial militia who run a sort of underground fight club in which they perform simulated muggings, rapes and humiliations on each other. And later, Sophia’s murder is re-enacted by the authorities trying to solve the case, and a classmate — the only person who really seems to mourn her — notes how people always said the two of them looked alike, while two men matter-of-factly paint over the scorchmarks on the wall against which her body burned. This is a frictionless world where, in the absence of real intimacy and community everything is just a substitute for something else, and everyone is a lone agent trying desperately to find a tribe to which they can belong, whatever the physical, mental or spiritual cost.
Vernier’s work often revolves around the relationship between people and their surroundings, and “Sophia Antipolis” continues and expands on that project, asking uncomfortably topical questions about human society in an inhuman, or at least non-human age. The word “Antipolis” means simply “the city across” but it’s hard not to think of it here as an anti-polis, an anti-city, a place almost infernally designed to alienate its citizens from itself and each other. And as specific as it may be to a small industrial zone between Nice and Cannes, it’s equally difficult not to recognize almost every modern urban environment in this razor-sharp film’s nightmare vision of estrangement, atomization and a citizenry, unnoticed even by themselves, going gradually mad with loneliness.