Delphine and Muriel Coulin’s The Stopover opens with a slowly moving shot through the inside of a plane, across a number of sleeping men. They are all in army camos but also wearing bright blue eye masks, the kind that are sometimes dished out by airlines for long haul flights. As the camera finally settles, it comes to a rest on the only two women in the group, Aurore (Ariane Labed) and Marine (Soko).
The shot is interesting in that it communicates a great deal visually, without a single line of dialogue needed. The Coulin sisters’ film doesn’t continue in this fashion though, with perhaps too much of the film’s incredibly interesting ideas frequently put into the mouths of its characters, rather than communicated through the film form. But it’s a bold and well played introduction to the film that effectively sets up the drama to come.
The plane is en route from Afghanistan to Cyprus, where the soldiers will “decompress” – a word used multiple times throughout the film – and try to come to terms with what they went through in order to better settle into their lives upon returning home. They’re put up in a bright and flashy hotel, but there is the sense that they are stuck in a strange sort of purgatory, unable to fully engage with the surroundings and stuck between two places. Rather than decompressing, the group begins to fold in on itself, with previously hidden information and frustrations coming to the surface as the soldiers are left to ruminate on what they’ve been through.
Front and centre of this story are Aurore and Marine, childhood friends from the town of Lorient who signed up to the army together. As they deal with their stopover, the mandatory group therapy sessions and the male dominated environment they are trapped in, the pair fall out to some degree, but there is the sense that they must stick together, in part due to the constant sense of threat from the men around them.
The Stopover – which is based upon Delphine Coulin’s book Voir du Pays – expertly navigates the various gender issues that the film brings up with intelligence and nuance, resulting in a strongly feminist film that has a great deal to say about the spectrum of sexism that women frequently encounter, from the everyday sexism of an off-hand comment to more serious threats of sexual assault. It’s perhaps unfortunate that a lot of the film feels somewhat predictable, thereby lessening the emotional impact of the narrative as events begin to escalate, but the Coulin sisters’ approach is sensitive, and a hesitancy to dramatise could well be born out of an understandable worry about sensationalising.
A tendency to verbalise a lot of the themes and a somewhat simplistic approach to the form – something that is all the more frustrating following the excellent opening – leave the film lacking a lot of bite, but this is still an absorbing film that tackles its subject matter in a careful and intelligent manner.