There are a lot of feet in The Ground Beneath My Feet. In Marie Kreutzer’s muddled film about muddled minds, which plays in competition here at Berlin, Valerie Pachner plays Lola, a woman barely holding it all together. Her sister has been placed in a psychiatric hospital following an unsuccessful suicide attempt. Her passionate affair with her boss is becoming harder to keep separate from her work. And that work, as a consultant helping failing businesses to downsize, is keeping her moving from airports to hotels to boardrooms, pulling bragworthy ‘48ers’, for the hours that a shift can last.
This chilling, soulless existence is reflected in the sterile spaces of a corporate office. If you thought that the tv series The Girlfriend Experience looked a little too baroque, Kreutzer’s film is one for you. Prepare to luxuriate in the corporate atmosphere, to feel like you’ve spent a 48-hour shift in the office. When we return to her apartment, at last, it’s been left so long that it seems like another corporate space, with empty drawers and blank walls. Lola’s every interaction seems guided by the playbook of business language, her entire existence is stifled by glances and microaggressions.
This cunningly gets into #MeToo territory. Lola has to navigate a business world that is defined by men even when the highest up people we meet are women. She gets flashed, one guy tells her: “Any other man would put his hands between your legs at dinner – I just imagine it”. But it’s not just the men. What’s interesting is that even though her boss is a woman, she’s still an example of patriarchy, who lies to and manipulates Lola at every turn, lording rank and power over her. Don’t sleep with your boss, people!
The film runs into trouble though. With an entire aesthetic and movie world so airless, it’s hard to inject any life into the film itself. So when the emotional beats come, they seem unfounded, leaning on the soapy. And that’s what much of the drama consists of. Who’s screwing over who? Do I have a mental problem? More and more elements are piled on each other and are then dropped. And the ending fails to tie anything together or do more than just stop.
On the positive side, Pachner gives a striking performance of Charlotte Rampling energy (incidentally, the older actres is being honoured at Berlinale with a retrospective), and it would be wonderful to see her win an acting prize here. She works not just against the confines of her world, but also the messy nature of the screenplay, to give a turn of deteriorating energy that belongs in the canon of breakdown movies, along with María Onetto in The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel, 2008) or Gene Rowlands in Opening Night (John Cassavetes, 1979), and Julianne Moore in Safe (Todd Haynes, 1995).
But when a film is so lacking in focus, it doesn’t matter if it’s well mounted. The quality of the actors recedes. Because all that’s left is a piece that can’t even articulate its own distaste at the confusion of modern work and romance.
The Ground Beneath My Feet showed in competition at Berlinale in February (2019), when this piece was originally written. It shows at BFI Flare the following month. On VoD on Monday, June 15th. On Mubi on Friday, September 25th (2020). On BFI Player in June 2023 for Pride month. Also available on other platforms.