Farewell, my lovely: Beyond the Hills, Maniac and Side Effects

12 March 2013

The horror, the horror... 'Beyond the Hills', in cinemas and available via video-on-demand from Friday, is the year's best release so far, while 'Maniac', also in cinemas from Friday, reworks a 1980s cult classic. 'Side Effects', in cinemas now, meanwhile, contains suggestions of horror... and much more.

Though no longer new, the so-called Romanian New Wave is continued here by the latest film by writer-director-producer Cristian Mungiu, whose 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days retroactively drew attention to the country’s filmmaking trends when it won the Palme d’Or in 2007. On the evidence of Beyond the Hills (După dealuri), which won its writer the Best Screenplay Award and its two lead performers the (shared) Best Actress Award at Cannes last year, the general aesthetic approach espoused by Mungiu and his contemporaries is far from becoming tired. Another example of what we might call a "durational cinema", it continues the unmatched tone-setting qualities established by the director’s earlier work as well that of his compatriots, including masterpieces such as Corneliu Porumboiu's Police, Adjective (2009) and Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005).

Reportedly based upon a real incident, Beyond the Hills introduces us to Alina (Cristina Flutur), a young Romanian woman who arrives at an Orthodox monastery, at which lives Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), her old roommate from the orphanage where both grew up. Alina is taken in by the monastery, overseen by an unerringly authoritative priest (Valeriu Andriuta), but her ulterior motive is to ask Voichita to run off with her. The other nuns, meanwhile, supervised by their mother superior (Dana Tapalaga), are at once accepting and suspicious of Alina, whose casual presence challenges their insular customs. Rules are inherited from above and imposed with an unquestioning, passive-aggressive conservatism. When Alina asks Voichita why it’s forbidden to wear trousers in the chapel, the latter replies, “It’s not forbidden, it’s just not proper.” In a later scene during which several of the nuns speculate as to another’s supposed abuse at the hands of domestic violence, one chips in with ostensible non-judgement: “It’s her husband after all.”

Gradually, suspicion accumulates and hysteria exponentially gathers. When Alina intrudes upon communion and has a kind of seizure in response to Voichita’s refusal to leave the monastery, the nuns struggle to strap her down and take her to a hospital in the nearby town. A sympathetic doctor (Costache Babii) advises Alina to convalesce at the monastery. Back there, however, a series of events are sparked by a combination of her own struggles against the rigidity of the religious framework by which the convent is governed and an attempt by everyone there to, finally, perform a prolonged exorcism on her, believing her to be possessed by an evil spirit.

As with others in the Romanian New Wave, there’s a sense here of inter-institutional dialogues and the ongoing deferral of responsibility to which each contributes: Alina and Voichita’s relationship is understood to have been sparked by parental abandonment, while their departure from the orphanage was forced upon them. Scenes in the hospital recall the aforementioned Lazarescu (2005), while those at the monastery come to resemble that film’s blackly comic repetitions.

Beyond the Hills is full of superlative moments. Mungiu introduces suggestions of horror into what is now a familiar aesthetic; just as Police, Adjective was an enthrallingly minimalist take on the police procedural, this hints increasingly towards a different genre, the exorcist film. Never directly showing us the supernatural forces that apparently inhabit Alina, the film unfolds from a detached perspective, which gives it both an immediacy and an ambiguity that demand and attain patience: you’re never quite certain where the film is headed, and, like Cristi Puiu’s Aurora an evaluation or even analysis is difficult until its full narrative has been digested.

Mungiu achieves a riveting complexity here: on the one hand, he teases out contradictions in institutionalised doctrine, while on the other he refuses to condemn his characters. One scene sees the nuns gather to assist Alina in deciding which of the 464 sins she has committed in preparation of her first confession to Father. As with the rest of the film, Mungiu opts for a long take and a cramped frame, the immobile camera and lack of editorial manipulation drawing attention to the increasing absurdity of Alina noting each trivial sin as it’s read out to her; one of the nuns suggest it’s easier to just take note of the sin’s number, as if it’s a matter of taking orders in a restaurant. Later, one of the sisters faints after seeing a “black cross” in some wood she’s been cutting. Called to the scene, Father tells everyone to “get on with your tasks, enough of this rubbish about signs.” Later in the film, the mysticism and iconography upon which his power rests are threatened when Alina enters the altar and calls bullshit on the whole thing. But rather than side with her, we’re encouraged to empathise with Father; Valeriu Andriuta’s performance is particularly warm, and the film’s makers should finally be acclaimed for addressing its cast of characters with an exhilarating humanism. As far as conceptions of national cinemas go, then, the Romanians continue in this regard to be unmatched.

One of Beyond the Hills' strengths is the way in which it sustains atmosphere and narrative interest without leaving the relative confines of both its setting and its character-perspective, something that is taken to an extreme in Maniac, Franck Khalfoun's reworking of William Lustig's 1980 slasher; unlike its source, Khalfoun's homage/update injects new blood by unfolding entirely and discomfitingly from the perspective of its central serial killer, a doe-eyed creep played by the creepily doe-eyed Elijah Wood, whose tortured orphan-artist Frank restores shop mannequins by day and murders women by night.

Opening with what appears to be an otherwise innocuous wide shot of a female party-leaver enduring some casual curbside harassment, Maniac reveals and throws us into its point-of-view shtick when Wood's off-screen voice remarks, "Leave her alone," and it becomes clear that we're viewing the scene not only from the inside of a car, but from the literal vantage point of its driver, who seems much more predatory as he crawls alongside the increasingly suspecting female into a dangerously unpopulated, no-go area of the city.

Assuming Frank's POV for the rest of the film, Maniac posed conceptual challenges to Khalfoun and asks in turn for a certain degree of patience from its viewers - many if not most of whom will be delving into this on the clear understanding that it's a slick handling of lowbrow material, and takes relish in forcing us to identify with its antagonist with all the subtlety of a human scalp stapled to a mannequin head. Be warned or intrigued depending on taste, then: the violence is particularly grim here, and is made all the more unnerving for being so "impeccably done".

Though Frank's knife doubles as a phallic substitute and is therefore nothing new, for instance, the sheer persistence of our identification with him is deeply unpleasant. The POV technique is central to the film's claustrophobia: it informs or limits the way in which Frank's victims interact with "him" (i.e., the camera, and therefore us), taking the form of a stilted interaction that cannot possibly come close to seeming authentic or even plausible, since the extent of imaginary eye-contact suggested by a to-camera address carries with it an extreme level of artifice. There is, further to this, an obvious descrepancy between the film frame's shape/size - i.e., the way we see the world through a camera's gaze - and the way we see the world proper.

This is a fantasy horror, though, told from the perspective of the fantasist, which might justify these problems as being in line with its overall narrowed perspective and its themes of artifice and construction; references to Robert Wiene's 1920 expressionist classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari further serve these ideas. If the narrative repetition upon which serial-killer horrors partly depend demands visual innovation, though, Maniac's all-POV gimmickry perhaps poses one challenge too many: there are frankly (Franckly? Frankly?) only so many ways in which you can film a woman's death-by-stabbing from the perspective of the perpetrator/penetrator without some form of routine setting in - and the immaculate glisten of that phallic, flesh-piercing implement and the beautiful special effects only magnify, in the end, the fundamental schlock nastiness of it all. Which may be the point.

Deliberate problems of perspective also lie at the heart of Side Effects, as do suggestions of horror (the murderous somnambulism of Dr. Caligari is also echoed here), misunderstood/victimised women, erotic thrills and institutional breakdown - all of which are interweaved across two maguffins, one pertaining to the commercial and ethical strands of the pharmaceutical trade and the other to the socio-economic causes of depression, stress, financial risk and insider trading, all of which are secondary ingredients when boiled down to the sexier thrusts of the Hitchcockian thriller.

Starring a never-better Jude Law opposite an intelligent Rooney Mara, Side Effects concerns Dr. Jonathan Banks (Law), an Englishman in New York who claims to have set up his psychiatric practice in the States as his patients are seen by American society to "be getting better", while back home visiting a shrink is a sign of "being sick" (or, we might add, extremely wealthy). Following a suicide attempt shortly after her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) is released at the end of a four-year prison sentence (for insider trading), Emily Taylor (Mara) is taken under Banks's care. Wanting but unable to imagine a future with her husband, she agrees to a course of pills, which have been recommended to Banks by his patient's previous psychiatrist, Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Designed to rectify chemical imbalances, the medication comes with a side effect, sleepwalking - which has its own specific dangers.

Drifting from one kind of film into another (though it's easy to overstate the switch), Effects builds a wrong-man mystery atop of an emotional tragedy, and for its second half, Law's seemingly sincere family man unravels truths and acquires a ruthless streak in order to preserve his professional and social (and therefore marital and familial) status. That the deepest truth comes by way of an explanatory flashback seems unfortunately contrived for a film that appears otherwise to be bold, but then its opening act is itself a "three months earlier" prologue, which primes us from the beginning for the blood ahead. The side effect is a genre film whose backdrop is the demand of a too-neat causality. But there are too many things to love here to be too dismissive of or annoyed with the smoochifying that explains away everything (and beneath it all, there remains a wronged man to root for).

Following Contagion, Haywire and Magic Mike, Side Effects is apparently Steven Soderbergh's final feature as director - an announcement that has no-doubt overshadowed this intriguing and experimental work, as critics struggle to come to terms with what they'd like to be a kind of summary statement. But Soderbergh was set to do his own thing from the off, and the unfussy way in which he has gone about an experimental and prolific output for the past few years is something indeed to admire. Suffice to say, at a time of crisis with regard to the funding, distribution and exhibition of independent film, the apparent retirement of its one-time king says more than any film could.

[Beyond the Hills review originally posted at Front Row Reviews on 15 October 2012.]