The third day Sundance featured another wide ranging spread. Here are three that caught the eye for various reasons.
Watcher (Chloe Okuno/ USA/ 2022/ 86 mins) feels like a throwback to the paranoiac thrillers of the 1970s, but its exploration of dread and alienation doesn’t have the energy and creativity of forebears like Polanski’s The Tenant or De Palma’s Sisters, or Dressed to Kill, or Body Double (Christ, that guy has issues). Maika Monroe does her best with a restrained part as Julia, a young American woman who moves with her new husband (Karl Glusman) to Bucharest. As he starts his new job, she’s left to her own devices in the unfamiliar city. She soon begins to struggle with the loneliness and the language barrier. Perhaps this ennui is a factor in her growing obsession with a man she believes is constantly staring at her from the apartment block opposite. The looming spectre of a serial killer targeting women in the city doesn’t help matters.
Watcher certainly has atmosphere. The dark, gloomy streets of Bucharest echo the malaise of late-Communist Berlin in Andrzej Żuławski‘s Possession, and the subtle lensing and lighting all help to heighten Julia’s disconnect from her surroundings. Choosing not to translate the frequent Romanian dialogue is also a sensible decision, increasing our empathy for our protagonist. But for the most part it’s a thriller that is mainly devoid of thrills. It ambles along at a low ebb, even tempering Julia’s rising panic to the point where Monroe frequently appears stunned at the situation instead of terrifying. It also rather shoots itself in the foot with a piece of casting that can’t help but give the game away. Put next to the recent The Voyeurs, which deals with similar themes but in a riot of sex, camp, and bad taste, Watcher feels hamstrung by its own restraint. The decision to highlight atmosphere over salaciousness is admirable, but it flatlines long before a more amped-up climax. Okuno’s “Storm Drain” segment of V/H/S 94 shows what she can do when she lets herself off the leash. 2/5
Anamaria Vartolomei gives a performance of ferocious honesty in Audrey Diwan‘s abortion drama Happening (France/2021/ 200 mins). If Call Jane focusses on the issie with a Hollywood gloss, Happening is steeped in the blood and the pain and the trauma of it and it dares you to look away. Based on the autobiographical novel of the same name by Annie Ernaux, Vartolomei is a bright, aspiring writer at a conservative French university in 1963. A brief dalliance leaves her pregnant, which would make is impossible to continue with her studies. As abortion was illegal at the time – even helping to locate a means of termination for others was an offence – Annie has to take drastic measures, as her life as she wishes to live it is literally over.
Diwan forces the viewer into Annie’s headspace throughout in tight close-ups and point-of-view shots. Intertitles showing what week her gestational cycle has reached keys us further into the urgency. This is assured filmmaking given that there is nothing at all hysterical or artificially rushed in Diwan’s technique; solid social realism that calls to mind the Dardenne brothers at their exacting, compassionate finest. In fact, Diwan practically gets out of the way and lets Vartolemei’s fearless, expressive face tell the story. There are some scenes that are genuinely shocking – it’s clear that this is not a pleasant experience, nor just another means of contraception as some disgracefully try to paint it – and 60 years distance makes even the professional procedure look like something barbarically medieval, but ultimately it’ll be the astonishing Anamaria Vartolomei that will linger in the memory. 4/5
Also incredibly memorable is Goran Stolevski‘s debut You’ll Never Be Alone (Australia/ 2021/ 108 mins), a philosophical, meditative folk horror about a young with learning what it is to be human. Nevena (Sara Klimoska) has been raised feral, shut away from the rest of her community in 19th century Macedonia. The reason is her mother is trying to renege on a deal she made with the witch Old Maid Maria (Anamaria Marinca), in which Maria agreed to spare her as a baby in exchange to learn witchcraft at 16. When Maria collects on the deal, Nevena has to experience humanity from scratch. This she does by the gory method of shapeshifting, adopting male and female forms (including those of Noomi Rapace, Alice Englert and Carloto Cotta) by murdering a person and stuffing their innards inside a ‘witch wound’ just above her heart.
You’ll never be along is folk horror at its most elemental and sensuous. It’s steeped in the beauty and brutality of its surroundings, where death is accepted with a shrug and life has carried on for centuries with not a glimpse of the industrial revolution that’s happened elsewhere. And it’s a truly vivid piece of work, drawing on Macedonian folklore with fidelity and zero sentimentality, as Lukas Feigelfeld did for Germany in Hagazussa, and Rainer Sarnet did with Estonia in November. It works on repetitive rhythms of death and rebirth at a hypnotic pace, and makes no allowances for its audience. Some have compared it to Terrence Malick at his most abstract, but there’s no sense of self-indulgence here. Every shot feels like it has a purpose, some connective tissue with everything else around it. It’s incredibly bold filmmaking at any level, but for a debut it’s breathtakingly confident and original. 4/5