Lola (Valerie Pachner) shouldn’t blame herself for her older sister Conny’s (Pia Hierzegger) abuse of prescription drugs, which often results in hospitalization. Conny has always been this way, at least for the majority of the siblings’ adult lives. That doesn’t mean that Conny’s condition doesn’t haunt her younger sister, though — quite the opposite, actually. Conny used to be the caretaker; now it’s Lola. The guilt of being far better off than her elder sibling in almost every respect is the one thing that cuts through Lola's otherwise ruthless, no-nonsense way of life. Never mind her boss-slash-girlfriend (Mavie Hörbiger), her professional success, or the enormous project looming above her — Conny’s life is the one thing Lola can’t rope into her disciplined routine, and it’s eating away at her (whether she’d admit as much or not).
While in line for security at the airport, Lola receives a call from a number she’s all too familiar with: the hospital nearest to her sister Conny. She’s overdosed again, and as Conny’s legal guardian, Lola needs to come right away. Speaking to the doctor, she dismisses it like she always does — Conny’s just anemic and, combined with her paltry diet, can’t always handle her medications. She’ll be back to normal again after spending a few days in her usual facility, leaving Lola to return to her mounting professional responsibilities without remorse. It’s a hospital, after all — they’ll be able to take care of her sister far better than she ever could, especially with deadlines looming. However, when a panicked Conny soon starts calling repeatedly with reports of abuse at the hands of the hospital staff, Lola finds herself at an impasse: work, family, or the work-family combo of dating her boss? Perhaps, with the same careful planning she brings to the workplace, all three could receive enough attention?
As writer-director Marie Kreutzer’s fourth feature (but easily her most thrilling to date), The Ground Beneath My Feet takes the time to establish Lola’s prosperous professional life before allowing her personal sphere to intrude. The most contemporary way to show the disruption of the professional by the personal? A ringing cell phone, of course. Like an unexpected knock at the door or a silhouette looming in the background, Kreutzer recognizes how ominous a ringtone can be for people of a certain age. Anxieties about getting a call at the most inopportune time — during a board meeting, in the middle of a work dinner, or while on a date — fuel this controlled, slow-burning thriller, a sensation that can only be described as professional paranoia.
For much of its duration, The Ground Beneath My Feet evokes the very best of the minimalist thriller genre — particularly French director Oliver Assayas’s films Demonlover (2002) and Personal Shopper (2016). The cutthroat, high-stress environment created within the bleak, cavernous confines of Lola’s office building harkens back to the savage competition that plays out in Assayas’s dark web thriller, while the eeriness that is evoked whenever Lola’s ringtone sounds recalls to the director’s cellular ghost story. Assayas is part Hungarian, while Kreutzer hails from neighboring Austria, so perhaps something about this region produces filmmakers adept at summoning the horrors that lurk beneath the facade of the working world? If Kreutzer continues down the path laid out by The Ground Beneath My Feet, it’s possible she and Assayas could pave the way for a whole collection of professional paranoia films — a step beyond the workplace thriller, this nascent sub-genre has the potential to thrive in this era of gig economies and working-from-home.
The influences don’t stop at Assayas — the contrast between Lola’s blonde hair and her sister’s brunette brings to mind the visual illusion often employed by Alfred Hitchcock (or David Lynch, depending on your preference), especially when Lola’s brunette roots start to creep into sight as she spirals further downward. Still, despite having an obvious respect for those who have come before her, Kreutzer’s feature never feels hollow or derivative. With the total dedication to the role from lead actress Valerie Pachner, The Ground Beneath My Feet is steadfast in its businesslike approach to the dread of workaholism and the complications that arise when neglecting the self for the sake of the whole. It’s terrifying to consider: reality where — instead of a murderous madman — it’s the job following you home and your home following you to work. Imagine clusters of responsibilities creeping ever closer, right on your tail, reaching for your shirt collar, longing to clutch you in its grasp.
The Ground Beneath My Feet screens Monday, Nov. 11 at 3:00 p.m. and Tuesday, Nov. 12 at 4:45 p.m. at the Plaza Frontenac Cinema.