Motherly

The limits of motherly love are tested in this taut thriller that struggles to leave a lasting impact.

Kate (Lora Burke) and her daughter Beth live alone in an isolated farmhouse in the woods, but when Kate slowly begins to suspect that something sinister is happening, her motherly instincts are put to the test.

With shooting unfinished in March 2020 due to Canadian lockdown measures to combat Covid-19, despite the best collaborative efforts of the cast and crew, Motherly has, like many productions recently, endured a long, drawn-out struggle from production to having the film in front of audiences. In the case of Motherly, the restrictions and hasty initial shooting process bonded cast and crew in a way that feels visible in the final product. There is a sense of cohesion here, with all performances on the same page and a steady hand in creating moments of threat.

In some ways, it is this measured, even flow that highlights some of the film’s flaws, with the film layering on elements that are treated as revelatory, but are readable from the earliest moments. That ability to read the plot does make it very difficult to wring a great deal of tension out of proceedings, relying increasingly on poor decision making and character trait switching to drive the narrative. The action feels restrained, with a desire to ratchet things up that it never quite takes to that upper level.

The film has a great grasp on its location, repeatedly returning to sweep the house as events are revisited and reconceptualised. Early on, when Beth (Tessa Kozma) nonchalantly comments that the house is haunted, it is an early indicator of the underlying tensions the film wishes to explore. Within the house, simple household spills and everyday activities take on a sinister edge with the remoteness of the house sealing them off from the wider world. At a lean 80 minutes, the film has exactly the right amount of story for its runtime and while some developments feel predictable, this at least means there are threads to be pulled early on, rather than using the move of films desperate to invoke a twist by suddenly conjuring unseen elements in the closing minutes.

The strength lies in the time given over to the characters, allowing the performers to flesh them out and really situate themselves within the pain of all the characters. Lora Burke (Lifechanger, For The Sake Of Vicious) is in typically great form but the shining moments of the performance are those sections in which the film threatens to come off the rails a little more and turns the volume up. Burke and Kozma make for an excellent paring, with their mother and daughter duo at odds from the outset, constantly butting heads and locked in a cycle of miscommunication that leaves both alienated. Kozma is excellent as Beth, bringing a spiky quality to her interactions with Burke. As the film progresses and she is given more to do, she ably manages to sustain that early promise.

As a take on the home invasion thriller with a focus on relationships, Motherly will undoubtedly tick some boxes. Those yearning for something with a little more energy may be left wanting but it is, nonetheless, a diverting and reasonably entertaining watch with some great performances.

3 out of 5 stars

3 out of 5 stars

Motherly is available in the USA On Demand and Digital November 16, 2021 through The Horror Collective.

BFI London Film Festival 2021: Bull

Bull is an impressive and assured British horror-thriller that makes the most of every well-tuned element.

Synopsis: Bull mysteriously returns home after a 10 year absence to seek revenge on those who double crossed him all those years ago.

If you are looking to make a gritty British revenge film based around the mechanics of a shady family, the choice of a lead role is obvious. Neil Maskell is just so good at that deadpan humour-laced hardman character, able to switch on and off the intensity to excellent effect. Bull is no exception and he is on top form as the titular character, given the punchy one-liners that raise a smile as much as the explosions of rage make you sit back a little further in your seat. It is hard to imagine the line ‘spin it like you’re trying to kill us’ delivered by anyone else as effectively but this is a film that knows its strength lies in that mode of delivery and has the confidence in the material. Glimpses of underlying sensitivity reserved mainly for his son, Aidan (Henri Charles) allows the pace of the film to slow occasionally without disrupting too much flow.

The supporting cast is great too, with David Hayman, in particular, dripping with menace as Norm, the patriarch of the family Bull has fallen foul of. There is a constant unease throughout with flashbacks providing context as the narrative progresses. Director-writer Paul Andrew Williams keeps everything balanced on a knife-edge and the whole film carries the air of a slow-burning fuse. You are never quite comfortable within scenes, unsure if an encounter will result in violence or another uneasy, temporary truce. The focus on Bull and Norm for the most part does mean you are left with other supporting characters that are perhaps lacking in much unique development (especially the female characters), but everyone is ultimately delivering exactly what they need to.

The violence, when it occurs is brutal and unflinching but still carries those flashes of pitch-black humour. The plot beats move from relatively dialogue-heavy, even domestically-focused (although steeped in tension and bad feeling) to explosive moments, keeping the film functioning as confrontationally as possible. You can see traces of Williams’ previous works like The Cottage where more comic violence is the focal point, as well as his more gentle television work like A Confession, permitting a few more contemplative pauses. Above all, Bull is assured in its direction, refusing to answer questions for much of the runtime, preferring to pepper in flashbacks to bring focus to current relationships and situations. Some will undoubtedly find some of the later handling a tad clumsy, but it still revels enough in its confidence that it is difficult to not be swept along with it.

Using the funfair location for some of the action, including using the attractions as integral parts of the narrative feels inspired, even if some of these elements may well lose people. A scene set on a waltzer ride is notable for its technical proficiency as well as an example of the film enjoying stretching outside of its expected genre trappings. That experimentation with form is something that sets this apart, again destabilising what you believe you are watching as it progresses. The neon lights in contrast to the other more grey, everyday locations lend the location a sense of otherworldliness and two worlds conflicting with one another.

On the surface, Bull is the kind of thriller we have all seen before, but there is a dark playfulness at work here that makes it stand out above them, resulting in a conclusion that stands to split audience opinion, but makes the film all the more memorable for it.

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

Bull played as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2021 and will be released in UK cinemas by Signature Entertainment on November 5th.

BFI London Film Festival 2021: Inexorable

A competent thriller, heavily indebted to 90s erotic thrillers and in need of a few more personal touches.

Synopsis: The lives of a wealthy publisher and her novelist husband are changed by the arrival of a mysterious young woman at their country mansion.

As far as first features go, it is hard to imagine anything more impactful than Fabrice du Welz’s Calvaire, a film that purposefully adopted the trappings of European ‘ordeal’ cinema, right down to the name. Inexorable manages to include some moments of Welz’s flair for oddness and discomfort, but otherwise, we are experiencing something far more tame and even throwback here in his take on an erotic thriller.

Marcel (Benoît Poelvoorde) is an author, living with his wealthy wife Jeanne (Mélanie Doutey) and daughter Lucie (Janaina Halloy) in a mansion left to her by Jeanne’s father. When Lucie’s new dog Ulysses runs off, the family fear the worst, but the dog is brought back in strangely commanding manner by Gloria (Alba Gaïa Bellugi). Agreeing to take on training duties, Gloria later finds herself in need of a place to stay and is invited by Jeanne to occupy a room in the mansion, bringing the competing wants and desires of them all into sharp focus.

This is a perfectly serviceable cuckoo thriller with leanings towards the erotic thriller, although with the discomfort turned up considerably. Although the plot beats here are incredibly familiar, there are a few Welz touches that threaten to shake up the format. Those moments are arguably too few and far between, but when they do arrive, they are genuinely interesting, stirring intrusions that stick in the mind. Otherwise, you can likely tell exactly where this film is headed before it sets itself in motion.

There is also some introspection in terms of Marcel’s position, particularly in his growing discomfort in trying to fill the space of the mansion, a space in need of reconstruction. The house dwarfs the family, but the spirit of wife Jeanne’s father also dwarfs Marcel – offers to move into his office trigger intense feelings of inadequacy for him that extend into other areas of his life. The setting of the house puts all the relationships under a microscope with the vast rooms offering no comfort or communal space, further fracturing the way the characters interact.

Bellugi is excellent as Gloria, able to embody the quiet, vulnerable sections as well as the more dynamic scenes required later on. Special recommendation must be made of the film’s youngest cast member Janaina Halloy who centres one of the film’s most challenging moments. Elsewhere, Mélanie Doutey makes a spectacle out of silence, expertly drawing meaning and emotion with facial expressions. In contrast, but no less effective, Benoît Poelvoorde is tasked with various near-monologues, blurting his thoughts and anger into the open.

Inexorable toys with getting a little stranger at certain points and feels like it lacks that gear change it would have if that oddness was allowed to fully flourished. Still, there is enough atmosphere and thrilling moments to soak up that you won’t come away feeling unfulfilled.

3.5 out of 5 stars

3.5 out of 5 stars

Inexorable screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2021.

Interview with Kratt director Rasmus Merivoo

Keri of Warped Perspective follows her review of Kratt with an interview with director Rasmus Merivoo.

As part of Scared Sheepless’s coverage of the Fantasia International Film Festival this year, I was very happy to offer a guest feature on an unusual title called Kratt (2021). Better still, we were contacted this week with regards to speaking to the director, Rasmus, about the ideas behind his film and how things have been going since its premiere. Look out for a release of Kratt, which is currently still running on the festival circuit but will hopefully on general release in the not-too-distant future, and in the meantime, here’s Rasmus on a film he describes as “a mullet haircut: business in the front, party in the back”!

1) Thank you very much for speaking with us! Firstly, the idea of the ‘kratt’ is quite novel; I hadn’t heard of this mythology before seeing your film. Why did you choose to bring this aspect of Estonian folklore to the screen?

RM: The mythological story of Kratt is the story of tools breaking the neck of their master. It is very well known in Estonia, but the story has always been told as existing in a world of the past. But now is the time, when we are more surrounded by tools than before: never have we been so dependent on tools. In LA, for example, I couldn’t get to the hotel from the airport without a smartphone. To travel, I needed planes, cars and a Covid passport too. I wanted to bring that old scary story to our modern world, to play with it in the environment of the small Estonian town I live in and to understand its deeply rooted warning. And share it with the world after that 🙂

2) The two lead characters, Mia and Kevin, are absolutely addicted to their smartphones and being asked to do without them leads to their encounter with the kratt! Nora and Harri, who play the leads, are your children, right? If so, what was the experience of working with them like?

RM: We reached a new level of appreciation for each other. I was their director, they were my professional actors. We played together, but it was work. They had their first real job experience with real pay, and they took it very seriously. But it was also a lot of hugs and laughter, drinking lemonade and eating pizza in the middle of the night. It was fun! We all loved it very much!

3) You tackle quite a lot of topics in your film, from the aforementioned ‘smartphone generation’, to political corruption, to the supernatural! How challenging was it to combine all of these ideas?

RM: It was like a very personal puzzle. All the bits here are from my life, things that I have been collecting – experiences, local stories, myths and memories. It just started making sense to me and I couldn’t stop digging deeper. I just had to find all the Kratts that are lurking in my town and shed some light on them. I wanted to be honest, and not to have self-censorship or hidden agendas and when miracles started to happen, I felt we were on the right path 🙂

4) Did you have any concerns about the Estonian sense of humour carrying across for foreign audiences? I feel like I got most of the jokes, but maybe not all! 

RM: I have seen this movie with audiences a lot of times now, and what I seem to be doing is crossing out all the jokes that have been laughed at! There has never been an audience that I have witnessed that has got all of them 🙂 Some jokes are visible only with the second viewing, or more. Some jokes are so personal I laugh alone and a couple of them are meant only to a specific target, but I feel the humour is only a bi-product for me. It just happens while I’m concentrating on the details of the story and connecting all the wires for communication to occur. Comedy seems to be the lubricant for ideas too extreme to swallow and laughter is something that is needed to digest them. And it’s more fun to make a comedy 🙂

5) Grandma – played by Mari Lill – was great in the film, and I loved the physical role she played. Can you tell us about working with her? Was it fun on set?

RM: She was one of the reasons I felt I should make this film. I met her on the set once and fell in love. She was known for a role playing a little witch in an old TV show for children, but she’d never been given a leading part in a film. I wanted to tailor her a role she could shine in and when she won the Estonian Oscar for best leading woman for her performance in Kratt, the whole audience stood up. It was a magical moment that made everybody happy and the world a better place. She connected with my children like a real granny from the first day and when production went colder and bloodier, she was a real trooper. We had a lovely time together. 

6) Finally, how has the film been received? And do you have any future plans for other features?

RM: The film has been received very well! I have been getting so many lovely messages from friends and strangers all over the world, so I feel that I must have done something right 🙂 I just wrote a new script for the next project, and we are trying to get it off the ground with Tallifornia [the production company behind Kratt]. I’m very excited about it but I don’t want to say a word yet. I just like the mystery 🙂 

Many thanks to Rasmus Merivoo for the interview. You can find out more about his work here: http://tallifornia.com/

Salem Horror Festival 2021: Two Witches

A clever structure makes this witch story all the more compelling.

Synopsis: Witches don’t die before leaving their legacy.

There is a willingness in Two Witches to throw everything at the screen and while that willingness won’t work for everyone, it is commendable nonetheless. Witches in horror go through various stages of representation, from the ‘is she or isn’t she’ ambiguity of films like The Witch, teenage experimentation in The Craft to the overtly sinister in the likes of Suspiria. Two Witches arguably feels closer in tone to something like Drag Me To Hell, with loud noises, gurning and gore taking a leading role.

The structure of Two Witches is an interesting one, constructing itself as an anthology (told in chapters, as is the trend) made up of two stories that interconnect as well as further teases to further entries into that world. It is an ambitious move, but the handling of each section allows director Pierre Tsigaridis (sharing writing duties with Maxime Rancon and Kristina Klebeto) to show their capabilities in establishing characters and situations with precise efficiency.

The first section features Sarah (Belle Adams) as a woman whose recent pregnancy discovery has arrived with a side order of extreme anxiety. Boyfriend Simon (Ian Michaels) dismisses her concerns for the most part, electing to take his clearly spooked partner to visit friends Dustin (Tim Fox) and Melissa (Dina Silva). Continuing with their sequence of poor decisions, the quartet indulge in some spooky pursuits and things, unsurprisingly escalate.

That first section contains a lot of the jump scares of the film, but balances this with shadows moving in the background and a genuinely oppressive, unpleasant atmosphere that is well earned. It won’t be to everyone’s tastes and admittedly, as someone who isn’t as keen on jump scares, my patience was tried a little. For me, the part that shines is the early parts of section two, featuring Masha (Rebekah Kennedy in a very strong performance). Kennedy has more than a little of the Sissy Spacek’s about her, allowing her to effectively play with the nuances of the character, switching from vulnerable to dangerous within an instant. This segment picks up on a far more interesting exploration of witches as a legacy, with power craved rather than objected to.

The over reliance on shots of women in various stages of facial contortion does become tiresome, even when interspersed with the gorier imagery and character development. It feels like a bit of a shortcut that the film takes too often and this loses the impact. Still, this is a film that is practically decadent with its horror images and some of it will likely test even hardened viewers.

If you are looking for something noisy, unsubtle with an interesting take on witches, Two Witches is definitely worth your time and attention.

3 out of 5 stars

3 out of 5 stars

For more information on the Salem Horror Festival please see their webpage.

Salem Horror Festival 2021: What Happens Next Will Scare You

A tour through the weirder side of the internet that makes the most of its concept and resources.

Synopsis: Working late on their Halloween feed, a motley crew of internet journalists share their top thirteen scariest viral videos, but when an early entry curses our snarky hipsters, they must distinguish fact from fiction before a tidal wave of terrifying supernatural activity leads to real-life murders.

The last film with a clickbait title I watched was 15 Things You Didn’t Know About Bigfoot (I believe the film has now been renamed for brevity’s sake as I’m pretty sure it also had a further extension of the title into Number One Will Surprise You or something similar) so What Happens Next Will Scare You had plenty to live up to in those terms. What we get over the course of a relatively short runtime is a mostly effective skewering of internet tropes and the scares promised too.

What Happens Next Will Scare You deserves a great deal of praise for the way it handles the movement through different internet aesthetics to showcase the viral videos. Constructing the perfect mean girl vlog, grainy VHS recordings and dimly lit dashcam footage to name but a few means all the videos feel distinctly different and as a result, allow the film to have more fun with the format. This follows an opening sequence consisting of a collage featuring links and clickbait headlines that escalate in their strangeness. It evokes that feeling of stumbling into an internet rabbit hole, sent to stranger and stranger videos. While it does occasionally take the easy way out (there is a screamer gag here early on, for those who struggle with that kind of thing), it does so to further its observations of online culture.

Within that online culture, it looks at the creation of new content, but also positions the internet as a space for found artefacts – previously forgotten videos and curiosities that when divorced from their wider context tend to take on even more sinister qualities. While this is a film primarily focused on trying to have fun with its scares, its treatment of online culture and related media gives it a little extra weight.

Some performances occasionally feel flat but this is more a consequence of not spending that much time with the characters themselves, meaning performers have less time to make a mark, as opposed to having to react to the videos in fairly quick succession. Crowding the space with so many performers when factoring in those featured in the videos does make it difficult to connect on a deeper level, but that is a small complaint when the star is the treatment of the internet and the ability to cram in as many different kinds of scares as possible.

Overall, this is a film that manages to echo the culture it seeks to represent, despite limited means (and sometimes these limits are a little too visible) and has plenty of fun and jolts along the way.

3 out of 5 stars

3 out of 5 stars

For more information on the Salem Horror Festival please see their webpage.

Nightstream 2021

Nightstream returned for another online union of the Boston Underground Film Festival, Brooklyn Horror Film Festival, North Bend Film Festival and The Overlook Film Festival.

With so many films watched recently due to online festival coverage, Nightstream represented a chance, like its 2020 event, to indulge in some horror events that move beyond the films itself and engage more creatives in discussion about their careers and processes. Some films I had managed to see before the event itself so I have outlined those reviews below, followed by a write-up of a few events I managed to see this year:

Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched
Alien On Stage
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair
Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes
Hellbender
The Greenhouse

A Celebration of Chucky with Don Mancini and Peaches Christ

The Child’s Play franchise has gone from strength to strength, most recently making the move to television with a new SyFy series. Creator Don Mancini joined Peaches Christ for a discussion of the series and the way it has evolved. Kicking off with a performance from Peaches, it is clear from the outset what the Chucky films mean to audiences, particularly queer audiences. From Bride of Chucky (which Mancini relates as a deliberate choice to add glamour) and definitely Seed of Chucky, that queer sensibility has brought itself front and centre. Throughout the talk, the importance of the new Chucky television show featuring a 14-year-old boy who knows he is gay was repeated – an open representation that could strike a chord with many young viewers questioning their sexuality. Don Mancini also called attention to how the franchise is able to continually reinvent itself, with Curse a skew back towards outright horror to prove Chucky still has the ability to scare. Coupled with some fun anecdotes about Chucky’s popularity across the world, some clips from the new series to whet the appetite and some stories from the Hannibal writers room, this made for an excellent, uplifting chat between two people with a huge amount of affection for horror.

A Conversation With CREEPSHOW Showrunner Greg Nicotero and Writer Mattie Do

Confession time: I’ve yet to see any of the Shudder Creepshow episodes – not through any kind of avoidance, just an abundance of other content I keep getting to first. However, if you have Mattie Do on a panel, I’ll watch – you can still check out an excellent Q+A following a screening of The Long Walk here. Do is truly one of the most exciting voices working in horror today and her panel appearances are always lively and engaging. Greg Nicotero brings a wealth of experience in horror effects, props and of course, as a producer on both Creepshow and The Walking Dead. The main topic of discussion was around Do’s final episode segment Drug Traffic, which tackles themes of authority, borders and anti-Asian sentiment. The conversation also turned to the supernatural being at the heart of Lao culture, with festivals dedicated to honouring the dead and bringing the fantastic into everyday life. Finishing up on some discussions of her next projects and the future for Creepshow this was a thoroughly engaging chat, curated well by Clark Collis.

The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies Presents The Back Rooms: An Exploration Of The Creepypastas Phenomenon

Creepypastas have long been part of internet lore, becoming collaborative works of storytelling and art making that take on a life way beyond their first appearance. Introduced by genre favourite Graham Skipper, Simon Laperrière led a tour into the phenomenon, using The Backrooms as a gateway. Offering liminal spaces in which it is said to be possible to ‘unclip from reality’ The Backrooms works well as an example of the expansive nature of the creepypasta form. Complete with intricate, textured guides to different rooms, they function as vivid online participatory culture, moving from urban legends into something more creative. Laperrière also gave an interesting overview of how the Slenderman movie failed to capture the spirit and intrigue of creepypasta (no argument here).

The Future of Film Is Female Presented by Daily Dead

Returning for 2021, The Future of Film is Female brought together a great panel of female filmmakers, academics and film festival programmers, moderated by Caryn Coleman to discuss the future of horror as it relates to female and non-binary work. Featuring A.K. Espada, Samantha Aldana, Kate Robertson, Ashlee Blackwell and Lisa Dreyer, this was a lively conversation that managed to focus not only on women behind the camera, but also those writing about the subject and those putting films in front of audiences or teaching film students. There was lots of insight into what ‘radical empathy’ meant to the panel in their work and consumption of horror films. Perhaps most interesting was a discussion of curating horror for University students where a tolerance for horror was an unknown and appreciation of the genre could not be assumed. All the projects mentioned all suggest great things to come, supporting the idea that the future of horror is female.

You can read more about Nightstream at the webpage, including a rundown of the Audience Awards.

Synonymous With

An achingly beautiful love letter to the ‘other’.

Synopsis: A student’s increasingly intimate line of questioning causes his interview with a local horror host to take a vulnerable turn.

Told through a mixture of photo collage, archive clips and interview segments, Synonymous With is built on the conversations between largely unseen interviewer Jackson Weil (Thom Hilton) and former public access television host Syn (Remy Germinario). As the first Halloween without Syn’s TVKTV13 show Synister Synema with Myster Synonymous looms, a local film student looks to uncover more about the man behind the persona.

At only 12 minutes long, Synonymous With contains a wealth of emotive material, wearing its fondness for horror on its sleeve as well as delving into why those in the LGBTQ+ community and others who find themselves outside of the ‘norm’ discover solace in horror. Early in the film, Syn draws attention to the idea that popular people didn’t ‘need’ his public access channel, but those who found it were able to be ‘unknown, together’ in one of the film’s most touching sentiments. That sense of being an outsider, especially in a queer context and finding some kind of communal experience is one the film handles with particular skill and empathy.

Collaged photos deliver a definite sense of space, drawing on that wonderful small town Halloween feel of crunchy leaves, chilly weather and quirky decorations. The camera initially feels static, situating Syn as small, dwarfed by his persona, the world and the horror posters surrounding him. The increasing fluidity of the camera starts to allow him more space in which he is the central figure and focus of the attention. This stylistic shift assists in the building of their rapport but with a largely unspoken tension bubbling. Germinario makes for a charming screen presence, wearing vulnerability, quiet anger and a range of other emotions as the interviews progress. As the pair continue to converse, that uncomfortable early, almost parasocial intimacy begins to unwind. Their relationship is delicately built, readdressing boundaries and reframing roles in a way that is difficult not to be swept along with.

The crafting of the Synister Synema segments is excellent, with a playful camp at its centre in both the props, staging and Syn’s commentary. There is an authenticity in that low budget presentation of people being left to create for themselves and others like them, rather than trying to approach the mainstream. As much as this functions as an ode to the horror genre and its hosts, there is also a deeply held affection for the spaces that allow them to be unpolished and ungoverned, even if it is that very quality that means they may disappear without trace. That liminality of not knowing who (if anyone) is watching and if it is important to them is a deeply affecting idea.

I don’t mind saying that I have cried every single time I have watched this quiet, delicate film. The disarming vulnerability and striking beauty of finding light in darkness is a truly romantic one: a meditation on the power of being seen.

You can now watch Synonymous With on Vimeo.

BFI London Film Festival 2021: Titane

Julia Ducournau’s anticipated second feature expands on her earlier themes, taking them in weird, uncomfortable but compelling directions.

Synopsis: Titane : A metal highly resistant to heat and corrosion, with high tensile strength alloys.

Sometimes there are multiple synopsis’ offered for a film, some run a little long or give too much away – and while the same can’t be said for Titane‘s very light on detail description, I’m also not entirely sure you could really sum up the events of this film within such a short format. Normally, I’d try and give a breakdown of some events, but Titane is one of those films that benefits from knowing as little as possible beforehand, allowing the film to unfold. As a result, this review will try to avoid discussion of many plot details to allow the experience to be as unspoiled as possible in advance.

When the original buzz around Ducournau’s first feature Raw appeared, it seemed that this was to be an extreme film and while there was certainly gory imagery that went further than much more mainstream fare, for me, it had more in common with the likes of Ginger Snaps as a weird, but kind of touching, female-focused coming-of-age tale than some of the European ordeal cinema it found itself mentioned in the same breath as. Raw‘s handling of a young woman forced to deal with a dark family secret as she tries to move through veterinary school probed the nature of close bonds and the kind of treatment that will allow you to overlook. In that sense, Raw sets the stage for Titane‘s rather more sustained and provocative exploration of those dynamics, marking a growth in the director’s confidence and vision.

Ducournau’s strengths lie in the cultivation of moments that are constantly on the edge of going too far, teasing the worst of the imagery, that teasing that leads to the dark comedy which is ever present throughout Titane. The more intricate details of injuries have an impact (heard plenty of uncomfortable reactions during the screening and for good reason) and are allowed to go to more uncomfortable places, while allowing that wry smile to emerge from underneath. Similarly, although this is, in terms of structure, a standard narrative piece, much of the film feels like a series of vignettes – Ducournau completely in control and out of control simultaneously, touring fantastical and distressing ponderings. This, understandably, won’t be for everyone, especially when gruesome set pieces take centre stage and the absence of a consistent tone to rest on may present issues for others. Some will find the dialling up of pitch-black comedy a difficult sell and honestly, if the phrase cringe-comedy could apply to anything perfectly, it is Titane.

However, among the noisy, raucous, awkward and unsettling elements there are moments of deep humanity straining at the sides. This is a film consumed with ideas of transformation, belonging and the things we do to be comforted when confronted with the ugly realities of life. These vastly different tonal elements at times would threaten to overwhelm many films but it is the fluidity with which it moves through its ideas that saves it. You almost don’t realise the departure you have taken until you’re in the thick of the next one, with secrets and questions left hanging in the air while new ones flurry around it. Everything about Titane is overindulgent, dripping with style, flair and meaning, even if that meaning is, by design, open to interpretation and likely to be the subject of multiple essays once the film has had time to bed in with audiences.

For all the wild ideas, effects brilliance and stunning photography, it is still the performances that lend so much to this. Agathe Rousselle as Alexia is an incredible find – this is her first feature film performance and it is a staggering one, especially when there is so much physicality involved. Alexia is unknowable – able to lean into or divert sharply away from societal demands about who she is or should be. Having an unknown performer in the lead role works so well for this and the opening sequence features a near seamless, fluid transition that lays bare how flexible her presentation is. It is, considering the rest of the subject matter, a remarkably subtle touch that instantly adds meaning and a mission statement. Vincent Lindon also delivers on an arresting and incredibly game performance – embodying a discomfort in traditional masculinity while craving it and aspiring towards it.

Titane will undoubtedly divide viewers and I believe that divide will be sharp between those who love it for the swerving, off the wall collage it is and those who can’t find an entry point to it. Both positions are, of course, entirely valid but either way this is immensely exciting cinema that cements Julia Ducournau as a directorial force to be reckoned with.

5 out of 5 stars

5 out of 5 stars

Titane played as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2021. The film will also play at Celluloid Screams and Abertoir Horror Festivals.

Grimmfest: We’re All Going To The World’s Fair

Jane Schoenbrun’s portrait of a life lived online is an occasionally challenging watch that will hold some at arm’s length.

Synopsis: “I want to go to the World’s Fair. I want to go to the World’s Fair. I want to go to the World’s Fair.” Say it three times into your computer camera. Prick your finger, draw some blood and smear it on the screen. Now press play on the video. They say that once you’ve seen it, the changes begin… In a small town, a shy and isolated teenage girl becomes immersed in an online role-playing game.

The internet and more specifically social media has never been more present in our lives, allowing connection across vast spaces and time zones. Many films seek to imbed this sensation of being online into the very fabric of the narrative, resulting in ‘screen life’ efforts that spin off from found footage films in many ways. Turning a laptop screen into a storytelling device presents obstacles, which World’s Fair alternates between embracing these restrictions and removing itself from them entirely. The result is an immersive, disquieting experience that truly echoes the ebb and flow of being online, indulging in the kind of myth building that comes from only showing glimpses of the truth.

Casey (Anna Cobb) lives a solitary existence and one that revolves around her device and an online world that removes her from her place at home. Becoming involved with an online game that appears to hold the key to a fascinating transformation, Casey indulges in the challenge, but there is something more sinister under the surface.

The film’s flirtation with screen life storytelling produces something far more ethereal, with the physical and digital worlds constantly intersecting and overlapping with one another. The first time we meet Casey, she is taking part in the challenge – a muted but intricately detailed sequence of events that involves watching a video. However, that ritual soon spills into reality as she has to contribute blood, traversing the gap between digital and physical, new and old forms.

As I approach my mid-thirties, I’m keenly aware that the effect of this film on me may not be as potent as it will be for younger viewers, more attuned to the consumption of online media and the forms it presents. A sequence in which Casey attempts to settle herself to sleep using an ASMR video plays out across a projector becomes a portrayal of a craving for distant intimacy. Using the video as a source of comfort and as a coping mechanism draws Casey out of her room, but into a different, secluded space.

Anna Cobb occupies a huge amount of the screen time and it is to her credit that she delivers such a demanding performance when Casey herself can be such a slippery character. She is sensitive, yet petulant at times, vulnerable but forthright and Cobb manages to portray all of these nuances incredibly well. Her command of the screen is something that is sure to draw in those who may feel alienated by the very online, somewhat obscure direction the film takes at times. Her interactions with JLB (Michael J Rogers) as he implores her to ‘keep making videos so I know you’re still OK’ add a sinister thread, but also highlight how malleable and fleeting internet interactions can be – a deleted account and someone is entirely erased.

As Casey’s journey to the World’s Fair continues, the film manages to expertly evoke the near-constant stream of content that the internet has to offer, lacing sections with menace and a concern about what is about to be witnessed. This is a film that so infrequently turns up the volume or makes anything fully flesh, such is its careful ambiguity, that when it does, it hits far stronger. Schoenbrun allows things to play out almost in real-time, refusing to be rushed or play by the usual rules. As the tension builds, she is content to allow it to play out, constantly denying the viewer an ‘out’ or full understanding.

While some will ultimately feel too alienated from this to really appreciate it, the moments of ritual, emphasis on communication and well-articulated uncanny moments, We’re All Going To The World’s Fair feels like a very special film.

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

We’re All Going To The World’s Fair plays as part of Grimmfest 2021. See the Grimmfest page for more information.