I return to the festival’s International Competition with Sundance and Berlin hit Blind, written and directed by the scribe for Joachim Trier’s celebrated Oslo, August 31st. Having recently lost her sight, Ingrid finds the limits of her reality suddenly thrust from the horizon to the walls of the apartment she shares with her husband. Within the confines of her own home, she struggles to manage even the most menial of tasks, and therefore refuses to return to the outside world. Frustrated by her incapacity (or unwillingness) to confront herself to what she now cannot control, Ingrid retreats further still into her own mind, pouring herself into the writing and re-writing of narratives in which a set of characters are put through a succession of scenes that betray her own unspoken neuroses. Ingrid’s omnipotence stretches not only to her characters’ fate (their status as mere fictional beings is left unconfirmed) but also to the usual rules of narration. The spectator is made to connect the dots between Ingrid’s behaviour and the protagonists she so gleefully tortures, even as scenes they inhabit appear to shift and transform before our very eyes. Her stories’ gradual descent into self-hate is playfully communicated through the progressive absurdity of her storytelling, devolving into something approaching surrealism. Her newly acquired power ultimately reveals itself as a throttle for her underlying cynicism, one that’s covered with but a discreet, though welcome, cover of dark humour. Even so, Blind can only be described as an unconditionally challenging film, an ambitious work that attempts to visualize and perform a woman’s psychological struggle, but also to convey the drama of the increasingly strenuous relationship between Ingrid and her husband. More impressive than it is genuinely enjoyable, Blind is nevertheless a strong and distinctive first directorial showing for the talented Vogt.
More impressive than it is genuinely enjoyable, Blind is nevertheless a strong and distinctive first directorial showing for the talented Vogt.
My journey into the main competition belatedly continued with the screening Kornél Mundruczó’s White God, which bafflingly scampered from Cannes with the Un Certain Regard and, rather more appropriately, with the Palm Dog. The premise is astoundingly simple: a girl and her bastard dog are separated when tensions arise following her move in with her father, leading to the emergence of two parallel storylines. The first, and in truth the only one worthy of attention, revolves around the dog’s plight as it roams the streets, struggling to escape the pound thugs and to survive. Hagen, such is its name, finally ends up in the hands of a vicious battle-dog trainer, where he is montaged from a harmless furball to bestial bloodthirsty gladiator. The most trite coming-of-age cum father-daughter relationship narrative makes up the film’s other half, though I’ll confess it felt closer to an eternity. As impressive as the central gimmick is—there’s a tenuous argument to be made here for auteur status to be extended to dog trainers too—it’s ultimately undermined by it being deployed at the service of virtually nothing of consequence or value. Hagen’s metamorphosis into a canine Spartacus makes for an eminently compelling (and in certain scenes mightily impressive) crux, but Mundruczó and co. appear to have let themselves be overcome by an infectious laziness once the deal was agreed in principle, the novelty aspect of the film’s production perhaps an alluring enough prospect for hype-thirsty distributors. Had it not succumbed to the impulse to give its human characters such a major chunk of the plot, simultaneously ridding us of its ridiculous finale, we might have been looking at an altogether more tempting proposition. As it is, however, it is a unfulfilling waste of an amusing idea.
My anger at having missed the opportunity to watch anything other than Viva La Revoluchien thankfully proved short-lived as NIFFF delivered its strongest film so far: Jonathan Glazer’s ten-years-in-the-making Under the Skin. Not for aeons had I come across a film that so effortlessly combines the most abstract and figurative of scenes amidst a film otherwise determined to strip away any semblant of unrealism, not perhaps since the much-reviled A Serbian Film. Scarlett Johansson plays an alien whose purpose it is to kidnap humans, for reasons left refreshingly unknown. Under the Skin’s aloof protagonist drives through Glasgow’s landscapes in a delivery van, pretending to have lost her way to prey on men enticed by this otherworldly siren. Glazer’s experience in the world of music videos and advertising unquestionably shows in the kidnapping scenes, as Johansson’s perfect figure reins the unsuspecting men into a murky pool of blackness never to be seen again. These scenes shine with a mesmerizing plastic artificiality, almost dreamlike or perhaps hallucinatory. Under the Skin is peppered with this kind of vivid, unforgettable imagery the ancestry of which traces all the way back to Kubrick, Tarkovsky, and Lynch, though might I boldly suggest that, on occasion, Glazer outdoes even those eminent members of film royalty.
Though some will surely have been turned-off by the narrative’s ambiguous sparseness, I for one found its simplicity all the more invigorating. The plot essentially boils down to the protagonist’s progressive acquisition of compassion for her victims, and her acknowledgment of the body she inhabits as that of a woman, rather than merely a human’s. With utmost restraint and narrative economy, Glazer depicts the soul-crushing loneliness of this stranger walking amongst us, as her inability to get to grips with the oddity that is the human being turns into a fascination with the skin she lives in. Yet her inability to entirely assimilate with her host body pushes her into the furthest depths of a tragic loneliness. For all its superficial coldness, Under the Skin is at heart poignant fable, one that thrives on the eschewing of exposition and any explanatory impulses, on jaw-dropping imagery, on Mica Levi’s sublime score, on Johansson’s appropriately emotionless delivery… On second thoughts, let me rephrase: Under the Skin is so close to perfection we might as well call it so.
Under the Skin is so close to perfection we might as well call it so.
Rounding off a satisfying day at the races, I head back to the International Competition for the third, and final, time today for Critics Week’s acclaimed indie teen-horror It Follows, David Robert Mitchell’s unlikely follow-up to The Myth of the American Sleepover. Intelligently borrowing a leaf from some of horror’s finest’s book, It Follows works its scares in with deceptive simplicity. Somewhere in American suburbia, a terrifying disease is sexually transmitted from one teenager to another, ending the original host’s torture at the expense of its fresh victim. Its symptoms: to be endlessly followed by an unhurried being, one that can take the form of any person, and which never breaks into anything but a light stride. Letting it reach you results in a gruesome outcome, and a renewed chase for whoever you contracted it from. Most of the fun takes place in the first half, when 19 year-old Jay is mostly seen trying to endure, and ultimately accommodate, the horrifying curse she has been bestowed with. Mitchell’s lovely flat compositions invite constant scrutiny on the spectator’s part, every stranger in the background potentially the indefatigably deliberate source of her new tortured lifestyle. It Follows is ruthlessly efficient on the terror scale, and all the more impressively because it does the exact opposite of the frustratingly sterile jump-scare tactic. The capacity to outrun « it » ultimately allows the teenager what little leeway she can muster to cook up a plan, alongside her friends and sister, to dispel her unwanted follower, which is precisely the point at which the film starts to lose some of its energy. Ultimately though, It Follows is a clever, masterfully-executed and, crucially, scary as hell throwback to the horror genre’s finest hour. In the space of two films, Mitchell has proved himself a refreshingly unpredictable new voice, and now a fine tinkerer of horror’s codes.