Modernity acts as prison, predator and benign overseer all at once in Cyril Schäublin’s debut feature Those Who Are Fine. Taking its original German name from a ditty by 20th century Swiss troubadour Mani Matter, its narrative is composed with notes of folksy moralising like its namesake — but it is shot through with the icy shock of today’s world. Schäublin keeps at a cold distance from his sprawling, desolate sandbox — namely, Zurich — as the frosty presence of concrete and connectivity is keenly felt.
The film leans lightly on an urge to mythologise its own story, most glaringly in its opening moments as a court reporter takes a smoke break with two construction workers and relays briefly the case of a girl who defrauded ailing grandmothers out of thousands in Swiss francs and proceeded to make a fortune. It plays out like the setup for an Aesop story — the consequences to come intended as a moral lesson for those listening — but from this cute teeing-up, Schäublin barrels into a less clearly-defined, more meandering mood piece.
Sarah Stauffer plays Alice, the girl at the heart of the court reporter’s story, when Schäublin and co-editor Silvan Hillmann slide gently backwards in time. But Alice serves less as a morally dubious protagonist and more as the central cog in an intricate network of equally important parts. She glides through the city streets in diagonal and horizontal lines, scaling an urban landscape framed from afar by Schäublin.
Zurich is perpetually in motion around her, even if the parks and roads are hauntingly spare of inhabitants. Rather than an omnipresent audience surrogate, Alice arrives into scenes that are already fully formed. Incidents of entrancing specificity and mundanity play out without her presence — cops in riot gear discuss movies and exhibitions whose names they cannot remember, an elderly lady answers a bank teller’s disorienting security questions, a Russian millionaire opens a Swiss savings account.
These deliberately-paced episodes, dense with procedure and protocol, unfold over long, languorous minutes seemingly without relevance to the broader narrative Schäublin weaves. They are introduced several beats before their purpose becomes clear. This creates a story world that evokes life beyond its edges, beyond the limitations of its subject, projected onto a setting that is unnerving in its emptiness. Schäublin’s Zurich is brutal in its lack of vibrancy.
A preoccupation with technology hijacks the director’s eye and mind throughout. He lingers on ID card readers, iPhones and tablets many moments before and after they are used, and characters are constantly chasing a decent wifi signal or discussing which is the better mobile network with colleagues. In one telling vignette, the geared-up police stand vigil on the streets when a bomb threat is called in over email. Tech’s omnipresence, which has come to define contemporary life since the turn of the century, imbues every scene with a latent, cool paranoia — the feeling that something is watching, or someone else is in control.
It speaks directly to the central plot line — Alice’s scam on the city’s elderly population. As a call centre phone jockey, she has access to a wide-reaching bank of data, like addresses and phone numbers. Using it as a means to make contact with her marks, impersonating their granddaughters imploring desperately for hard, analogue cash, she becomes the embodiment of the film’s paranoia. Stauffer’s performance keeps emotion and motivation at arm’s length, making Alice something more akin to a spectre or an avenging angel — a force of nature born out of technology to prey on the old and defenceless. Even the speed at which she appears to accrue a fortune from her misdemeanours seems supernatural.
Schäublin threads this into the film through the way he places Alice into events already in play or locations he’s already made the viewer familiar with several scenes before she arrives in them. She comes gliding through a familiar world — uneasy in its rigid structure and clearly-defined rules — and attempts to act in contrary to this self-perpetuating system.
But Alice is part of that system — it’s clear in how she enters situations with near-precision timing, appearing as the banter or admin of the scenes’ preambles subside, and in the way her efforts to resist the laws of the machine turn back on themselves with little turbulence. She is pursued by two unassuming detectives whose antagonism remains strictly by the book, and whose ideas of on-the-job small talk extend little further than the different countries they can call on their phone tariffs. The cat-and-mouse between Alice and the policemen is viewed again with that cold distance Schäublin maintains throughout, and its resolution comes with little euphoria or devastation. It is all just part of the process.
So, the wheels turn on, and Schäublin’s techno-parable resolves itself without limiting its message to a singular lesson. Modernity and technology remain pervasive — a prison to the young like Alice who try to use its tricks against it to break free and a predator to those too old to understand it or bend it to their will. But mostly, it remains a benign overseer — watching with cold disconnect from afar, never actively upholding or thwarting any of the people that make up its moving parts.
Over 71 neatly-distilled minutes, Schäublin emerges as an artist with a keen analytical eye and a knack for mischief hidden beneath layers of despondency and detachment. The success of his debut feature, then, rests on whether the viewer regards the court reporter’s fable-like introduction as a wry joke or an unresolved promise.
Rhys Handley (@RhysHandley2113) is a journalist and film writer from Yorkshire in England. Now based in London, he is the biggest Talking Heads fan who still hasn’t seen Stop Making Sense.