March, 2020. In the seaside city of Catania, Italy, a migrant camp prepares for a visit from French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, part of a glorified press tour for the European Union to publicly demonstrate that those individuals seeking political asylum are treated with the utmost dignity and respect for human life. Those with any familiarity with the EU and its practices regarding migrants know that this is certainly not the case, as it has essentially closed its members’ borders to any foreigners, with Italy especially prone to the bodies of men, women, and children washing ashore on its pristine beaches, the result of hundreds of boats turned away and forced back into the rough seas, no home to return to. Lionel Baier’s Continental Drift (South) takes a fictional approach to the very real atrocities it documents, spinning a political allegory concerning EU liaison Nathalie Adler (Isabelle Carré) as she prepares for the upcoming arrival of the foreign dignitaries to her city’s humble migrant camp. As fate would have it, their visit coincides with the sudden arrival of Nathalie’s twenty-something son, Albert (Théodore Pellerin), an NGO activist seeking to shed light on the heinous acts of the EU. Nathalie is naturally estranged from her son, having abandoned both he and his father ten years prior upon her realization and acceptance of her homosexuality. Albert despises his mother for her prior actions as well as her willingness to work for an organization that strips away the rights of those individuals he seeks to uplift. Adding to the melodrama, Nathalie is also visited by former lover Ute (Ursina Lardi), who works for the German government and is in town for the fated meeting.
It isn’t hard to see what Baier and co-writers Julien Bouissoux and Laurent Larivière are up to here, the portrait of a fractured family forced to confront long-buried demons and feelings of resentment just as the Mom and Dad of the EU arrive to check in on one particularly troublesome family member. (Families… am I right?) But Continental Drift (South) isn’t focused enough to land its metaphor with any sort of impact. The early going plays like In the Loop as written by Bill Maher, with foreign officials left horrified by the living conditions of the migrants — get this, they’re too nice! Their solution: relocate everyone to a shithole so that Merkel can publicly demand improvements during her visit, after which they will just move everyone back two weeks later and present it as a news story. The joke is slyly funny in theory, but is executed with such half-assed commitment that it barely even registers as satire. At only 90 minutes, the film is far more concerned with the tired histrionics of Nathalie and Albert, standard-issue familial strife that hinges on cheap irony. In a speech she literally writes out for her son, Nathalie explains that she willingly took on the role of “bad mother” to accept the anger she felt she deserved for abandoning her son. But as Albert explains, she possesses the ability to change that narrative, to take on a different part. Can she not do the same in her professional life as well? That Baier and co. mistake this realization for profundity is fairly ludicrous.
Meanwhile, near film’s end, Continental Drift (South) stops dead in its tracks so that we can hear from the migrants themselves, who, up until this point, have been presented as silent spectators. Well, it’s actually just one migrant, who demands to know why they are exploited and asks if the EU understands that they both have the same color of blood. The only bit of relative subtlety the movie musters is that this scene doesn’t devolve into a performance of Shakespeare’s famed “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” soliloquy from The Merchant of Venice. And then we proceed to end on a joke about the initiation of international Covid quarantine procedures, which obliterates any lingering thoughts of possible good intentions here. More to the point: if you need a film to tell you why the EU sucks, perhaps you should avoid moviegoing for a while and instead brush up on non-fictionalized current events. Films like Continental Drift (South) certainly aren’t doing anyone any favors, artistically or otherwise.
Published as part of Cannes Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 1.