Most war movies try to shock us with hard, brutal, tangible, sick-making images, demanding that we look at the visible proof — the blood and guts and other gore — that results from guns and bombs. In the searching, cogent Neither Heaven nor Earth, director Clément Cogitore examines the horrors (and futility) of combat from a much different perspective, centering his feature debut on a French unit in Afghanistan whose soldiers inexplicably begin to vanish. The rattled servicemen, led by steely rationalist Captain Antarès Bonassieu (Jérémie Renier), use all the technology at their disposal to locate their disappeared comrades, but their matériel can never detect the dematerialized. Cogitore’s movie is at once otherworldly and firmly tethered to stark reality.
Neither Heaven nor Earth is set in the Wakhan District, in eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistan border (the film was shot in Morocco). The year is 2014, when the troops in the NATO-led security mission that Bonassieu and his soldiers are part of begin to withdraw from the embattled country. Though the captain and the dozen or so men he oversees are shown more than once trying to pass the uneventful hours with bench-pressing and satellite calls home, they are still in an active combat zone: Gunfire is exchanged, tense meetings with local shepherds convened, possible Taliban members confronted.
Despite the bursts of action, Cogitore’s film is defined by an eerie calm, a placidity almost sinister in its stillness. Extreme long shots underscore the troop's insignificance, the soldiers overwhelmed by mountains, dust, and patchy turf. Scenes in which bodies — whether those of the French fighters or Afghan villagers — are distorted when captured in ghostly green night vision or black-and-white thermal imaging stress Cogitore's organizing motif: That which is visible may not be any more intelligible than that which is imperceivable.
When the announcement is made, roughly 30 minutes in, that the first two (of an eventual four) of Bonassieu’s men are missing, the film takes on a supernatural element that is confidently sustained. Metaphysics slowly overwhelm the mettle of stoic Bonassieu, who declares, “I am and will remain in command,” only to quickly realize how false that statement is. Neither Heaven nor Earth conjures associations with other films, namely Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960), famously structured around a character’s disappearance. But perhaps Cogitore’s movie can be most fruitfully compared to another anti-war allegory released earlier this year, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendor (which, like Neither Heaven nor Earth, premiered during Cannes in 2015). In both, sleep and dreams and phantoms are potent metaphors, suggesting the extent to which reality has become indistinguishable from night terrors.