Thursday, March 28, 2019

BFI Flare: Virtual Lives

This year my viewing is a combination of online and in-person visits. It seems fitting then that the two films under scrutiny feature teenagers who seek connection in the possibilities provided by the internet as well as in their rather bleak surroundings.

 Nevrland is a debut feature from writer-director Gregor Schmidinger who attended the screening with his lead actor, first-timer Simon Fruhwirth. The film is billed as horror which set up expectations of scary things emerging from the shadows. Instead the film delivers a dazzling mix of bewildering images and creepy sound design that builds up atmosphere but never delivers a satisfying plot. 17-year-old Jakob lives in an all-male household somewhere in Vienna but in an insular, grey world which always seems to be dark. He goes to work at an abattoir processing pigs and experiences flashes of an alternate world in which he is in a green forest or diving into a lake. After a mental breakdown, he meets mysterious Kristjan online. This character seems to be North American and yet is name is spelled Germanically, just one of many confusing details. As their relationship unfolds, Kristjan exposes Jakob to many firsts, such as tripping and visiting an "underground club" where the teenager seems to return time and time again in increasingly fraught circumstances. Is it real? Is it part of his metal illness? Who knows? Schmidinger reeled off a string of influences in the post-screening Q&A, which included Kubrick and Noe but also Jungian psychology and the film suffers from over-intellectualising and under-emotionalising. What should be a stunning climax of Jakob breaking free from his repression feels like a set piece. Schmidinger clearly has vision and great technical skill but this film feels more like an exercise than powerful story-telling.

The Spanish film Carmen y Lola is also a frustrating watch, for different reasons. Two 17-year-old gypsy girls, the titular characters, fall in love in Madrid but are held back by their community's lack of acceptance. The story-telling is languid to the point of soporific but the two characters are intriguing, soft-spoken Lola wanting to pursue studies but realising she has few opportunities and sassy Carmen initially following her destiny of marriage and children before rethinking. Lola knows she likes girls and goes online to search, but then backs out of any meetings, while Carmen seems to be a model het. But life is not that simple. The supporting character of Paqui is left underwritten and her relationship to Lola is never clear--boss? best friend? crush object? The setting is striking and the glimpses into modern-day gypsy life are revealing but the story reaches no great dramatic resolution and one is left pondering how the story might have been more sharply told.

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