Category: Horror

The Nightingale (Australia 2018)

Aisling Franciosi as Clare

The Nightingale is ferociously good and for a second feature utterly remarkable. Writer-director Jennifer Kent had a career as an actor in Australian film and TV before making her stunning début film The Babadook (Australia 2014). That made her a name to watch and The Nightingale won the Special Jury Prize in Venice in 2018. Since then, despite strong word of mouth it has taken over a year to get a UK release and hasn’t figured as much in the recent discussions about ‘year’s best’ lists as it deserves. I can only think that the subject matter and the film’s brutal honesty have put some people off. It is matched only by Atlantique in my film viewing in 2019.

Sergeant Ruse (Damon Herriman) and the soldiers whose task is to establish the ‘order’ which will enable the colony to grow. (Photo by Matt Nettheim)

In 1825, the year that Van Diemen’s Land became an official British colony, a young Irish woman named Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is desperately seeking her freedom. She has worked for long enough as a convict to be released as a free woman to join her husband (also Irish and a ‘freed’ convict) and infant. But Lieutenant Hawkins has been abusing her and treating her like his play-thing and he refuses to sign her release papers so she must continue in servitude. When Hawkins is visited by a senior officer, who finds the Lieutenant’s general behaviour shocking, all hell breaks out. A drunken Hawkins and his henchmen, Sergeant Ruse and the reluctant Ensign Jago, attack Clare and her family. Hawkins decides to march across wild open country to confront his superiors in Launceston and regain their trust. The three soldiers are joined by some convicts as porters and an Aboriginal tracker. Clare, as an unlikely survivor of the attack, sets out in pursuit with her own tracker. This is the period of the so-called ‘Black War’ with the Indigenous people of the island fighting back against the European colonisers in a form of guerrilla war.

Clare works in a form of indentured servitude

Hawkins (Sam Claflin) and Jago (Harry Greenwood)

Clare seeks revenge. I haven’t described what has happened to her, but the film is extremely brutal (18 Certificate). The ‘Black War’ was a time of genocide or, euphemistically, ‘ethnic cleansing’. The number of men in the colony greatly outweighed the number of women (white and black combined). It takes time for Clare, a Gaelic-speaking Irish woman, and Billy, the young Indigenous man, to realise that they are united against the British. In fact it takes most of the narrative for them to properly respect each other. He has all the local knowledge and skills and she has a horse and a musket and an overwhelming rage for vengeance. The film is so intense and bloody that I hid behind my hands on several occasions and when an isolated act of human kindness suddenly occurred I began to weep.

If I analyse the narrative with some distance I can see that it is a familiar tale of revenge in the form of a hunt/chase. I remembered a similar film from a few years ago, also set in the Tasmanian forest. The Hunter (Australia 2011) shares one or two elements with The Nightingale, but doesn’t dig quite as deeply into the history and the horror of ‘wild Tasmania’. Closer is a film like The Tracker (Australia 2002) and after I looked over that post, I realised that The Tracker shares an interest in songs as well as colonial history. Sweet Country (Australia 2017) is another important touchstone. These last two films both share a narrative with The Nightingale in which an Indigenous man outwits the coloniser but is ultimately brought down by the technology of the coloniser (i.e. the weaponry) and the coloniser’s confidence and arrogance, based on an assumed racial superiority and contempt for Indigenous peoples. I’m sure all colonial exploitation and repression has been and will be fuelled by the same two factors. Of course, the world may end before long because of the coloniser’s greed and indifference to the natural world. I imagine that Indigenous Australians might have lived in harmony with nature for the last 250 years if the Europeans had kept away.

Clare with Billy (Baykali Ganambarr)

Clare is ‘the nightingale’ of the title and her singing plays a significant role in the narrative. It is a terrific performance by Aisling Franciosi who is on-screen for most of the film’s running time. I did feel that I recognised her but I can’t say that the TV crime serial The Fall (2013-16) has stayed with me and that is where I would have seen her before. Now I see she has been filming a TV adaptation of Rumer Godden’s Black Narcissus. She must have some chutzpah to take on the Kathleen Byron portrayal of Sister Ruth (looks a sensational cast). Sam Claflin is cast as Hawkins. I fear that I have misjudged his power as an actor. I found some of his early performances under-powered but I thought he worked well in Their Finest (UK 2016) and here he is terrifying. The third lead is newcomer Baykali Ganambarr as Billy, the Indigenous tracker. It seemed to me that he spoke English with what seemed to me to be a modern style/dialect. I wondered if this was deliberate by Kent – to suggest that the colonial oppression is ongoing? There were several credits giving information about the various Indigenous communities in Tasmania at the end of the film. I think one said that all the Indigenous actors in the film were from mainland Australia. The Indigenous population of Tasmania was effectively wiped out by the colonists (i.e. soldiers, convicts and settlers) by the late 19th century but now there are several thousand Tasmanians claiming Indigenous heritage through a history of mixed marriages.

Radek Ladczuk, who shot The Babadook for Jennifer Kent, frames this narrative in Academy ratio (1.37 : 1). Just as I didn’t notice the long running time (136 mins), I also found that I hardly noticed the framing because the tension was so great. Ladczuk also works with a palette of subdued colours in the forest, in candle-lit interiors and with costumes that emphasise the drabness of the colonial settlement – at least in the smaller settlements. It’s a shock when Clare meets some of the more moneyed classes in Launceston.

Since Jennifer Kent made her name with an innovative horror story, it is worth asking if this narrative has horror elements. I would say yes in the sense that not only is their excessive brutality but Clare is ‘haunted’ by the memories of the attacks and she has frequent nightmares – so much so that we do wonder if she hallucinates any of the events. Billy, too is affected by the sights he sees and the things he is forced to do. Sight and Sounds’ reviewer Nikki Baughan makes a perceptive comment when she concludes that Clare and Billy, unusually, do manage to have “wrought justice on their oppressors in a way that not many onscreen women and minorities are allowed to do”, but that they do not derive any pleasure or any relief from it. This is as she notes, “the most expertly landed gut punch of this astonishing, essential work”. I couldn’t agree more. This might be a hard film to find in a cinema but do try and see it.

LFF 2019 #13: Zombi Child (France 2019)

Fanny (left) and Mélissa wearing their sashes during the school day

This film was in the LFF programme but I watched it at home on MUBI. The streaming service is making three titles from LFF available for streaming. Zombi Child appeared in the festival’s ‘Dare’ section, a decision I find completely baffling. The French auteur Bertrand Bonello is a director whose name I recognise but whose films have had a relatively low profile in UK distribution. I remember the releases of a couple of his earlier films but I didn’t get to see them. I’m not sure if Zombi Child is typical of his work but it is certainly an interesting and intriguing film which I enjoyed. MUBI also has an earlier title from him which I will consider watching.

Clairvius on the mountains in Haiti

The film’s title uses a mixture of English and Haitian French. This is because Bonello wished to go back to the original meaning of ‘zombi’ and to try to avoid the American conception of ‘zombie’. The difference as I understand it is that ‘zombification’ is the process by which a person can be put into a trance-like state, losing any sense of personal will and therefore proving an effective slave worker in the plantation fields. In this instance a man in Haiti in 1962 (the character ‘Clairvius Narcisse‘ is based on a real person whose case was discussed in the 1980s) is zombified using dangerous toxins and buried alive but unconscious. Later he emerges from his grave and joins the workers in the cane fields. What happens to this figure becomes one of the two parallel narratives in the film. The other one deals with a teenage girl from Haiti who is a new arrival at a girls boarding school in Saint-Denis near Paris. Mélissa (Wislanda Louimatis the daughter of a woman who died in the Haitian earthquake of 2010. The school (the real school was used for 12 days of location shooting) was set up by Napoleon Bonaparte and opened in 1812 as a Maison d’éducation de la Légion d’honneur, educating the children of holders of the award. Mélissa’s mother was a recipient of la Légion d’honneur for civil duties in Haiti. Mélissa makes friends with a small group of her fellow students, all studying for the Baccalauréat. The girls have a form of secret society and Mélissa is initiated when she tells the group a ‘personal secret’ about life in Haiti. Mélissa has an aunt Katy (Katiana Milfort), her mother’s sister, who lives in Paris.

Eventually it becomes clear that a second girl is also important. This is Fanny (Louise Labeque). She was the one who invited Mélissa to join the group. She has, or perhaps had, a boyfriend who she sees in her dreams, a beautiful bare-chested, long haired young man called Pablo (Sayyid El Alami). His name suggests a Spanish young man or possibly a Roma. The actor’s name suggests a Maghrebi. Either way it doesn’t matter, he is an ‘exotic other’ as a partner for Fanny. Fanny is an adventurous young woman and her actions will lead to an overwrought conclusion to the narrative.

The key to the narrative enigma – who is Mélissa and what does she represent? – comes, according to critics, when the first cross-cut comes from Haiti in the 1960s to the school ‘today’ (Bonello helpfully provides dates on screen). The girls are in a beautiful spacious classroom listening to a history lecture. The lecturer is actually a well-known French historian, Patrick Boucheron, and his lecture discusses the image of France from the end of the 18th century, associated with ‘Revolution’, the subsequent history of ‘liberalism’ in the 19th century and the way that France would be accused by its colonised peoples. I confess that I didn’t read the subtitles very carefully so this scene didn’t stay with me as perhaps the director intended. What I saw was a very traditional pedagogy, lecturing a group of 15-16 year-old girls, some of whom were attentive, some bored and some like Fanny, obviously distracted. Something similar happened in a later scene in a Literature class – no engagement by the teacher with the students. But still, I did get the connection because I knew that Haiti was the first French colony and the first slave colony anywhere to rebel in the 12 year war which saw Toussaint Louverture deliver the first ‘Black Republic’ in 1804.

Bertrand Bonello (far right) next to Yves Cape on set for a night-time shoot in the school

In the Press Notes, Bonello discusses several aspects of the production, revealing that the budget was €1.5 million which is low for a French production, especially given the several trips for preparing and shooting in Haiti. Shooting was completed in four weeks, three in the school and Paris suburbs and a week in Haiti with no extra lighting and a skeleton crew. I think the results are remarkable and this certainly doesn’t look like a low budget film. I was particularly impressed by the Haitian footage. I don’t know Haiti at all, but the imagery was evocative of other parts of the Caribbean that are more familiar. The Haiti images also provide a link to Claire Denis, whose White Material (2009) was also shot by Yves Cape. I made this connection while watching the film and confirmed it later. There is a fascinating piece on the website of the French cinematographers’ website AFC in which Cape explains how he shot the film using “a RED Monstro with a set of Summilux lenses”. He explains how he coped with the lack of artificial lighting, trying to produce the most detailed 5K or 6K image which could then be cropped and manipulated in post-production. We often have debates on this blog about projection prints of digital film. I’m not sure if what I saw on MUBI was 2K or 4K but it looked very good. The possible supernatural aspects of the film and the overall theme also linked the film to Mati Diop’s Atlantique, also in the festival with review to come.

The washroom scene

One of the intriguing aspects of the film is the mixture of different genre forms. The two parallel narrative might be seen as informed by the specific sub-genre of the girls’ boarding school (Yves Cape comments that this was very much in mind for the scene in the washroom) and the Haitian narrative draws on the history of both colonial melodramas and supernatural/horror stories. Bonello tells us that he did indeed re-watch Jacques Tourneur’s fabulous I Walked With a Zombie, the Val Lewton production from 1943. In his AFC piece, Yves Cape suggests that Bonello also moves between “ethnological documentary, historical recreation and fiction”. I think it is an achievement to meld all these different forms in such a way as to produce a coherent single narrative. The last part of the film is a challenge, when the two separate narratives come together. I’m still not sure exactly what happens and what the resolution actually means. Bonello himself suggests that the whole Haitian narrative might simply be how Mélissa imagines how the memories and stories from her childhood might be put together. But that doesn’t explain what might be in Fanny’s head!

As well as the cinematography and imaginative use of locations, the film stands or falls on the performances of the four leads. The two young women were both found through open casting for five moths and Wislanda Louimat actually came to France from Haiti when she was 7. Katiana Milfort was found in Haiti and so was Mackenson Bijou, who plays Clairvius. All the Haitians had some kind of experience of performance, singing or dancing on stage. The music in the film is also important. I hadn’t heard of Damso, who I understand is a Belgian-Congolese rapper but what truly knocked me back was to have Liverpool’s football anthem, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ by Gerry and the Pacemakers, close the narrative. But then I thought about the song’s original role in Carousel (1954) and it made a certain sort of sense. If you have access to MUBI in the UK, do try and watch Zombi Child. 

Here’s the trailer. Beware it delivers SPOILERS that I’ve been careful not to divulge. You have been warned!

LFF 2019 #9: Koko-di Koko-da (Sweden-Denmark 2019)

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Living a nightmare

LFFlogo2019 Apparently writer-director Johannes Nyholm asked journalists not to reveal the plot in their coverage of the film however it is very difficult to write about the film without giving away details so go and see the film (though it’s not due to be released in the UK until February) before you read this as spoilers abound.

This is the second film I’ve seen recently that deals with parental grief at the loss of a child; the other was The Broken Circle Breakdown (Belgium-Netherlands, 2012). The latter dealt with the trauma in a realist fashion using melodrama to articulate the emotional pain. The milieux of that film, a country band, gave plenty of opportunity for music, which was superbly done. Koko-di Koko-da uses horror as a vehicle to articulate grief; early in the film a character references Freddie from The Nightmare on Elm Street series as a clue to understand the recurring (apparently) dream narratives the protagonists suffer. There’s also an element of Run Lola Run (Lola rennt, Germany 1998) in the repeating narrative; whilst Lola relived her trauma three times, the six experienced here felt excessive until the denouement. Koko-di uses an arthouse narrative technique where the end of the film throws into focus what’s gone before and there’s an epiphany. I won’t spoil what that is.

The ghouls are Grimm fairy tale type characters that are truly unsettling; they appear to be products of Nyholm’s imagination but have a convincing ‘collective consciousness’ quality to them. They are brilliant bogeymen. Of course, these tales are primarily aimed at children but the context here is entirely adult as the nightmare of a child’s death is brilliantly staged at the start. The bulk of the film is three years later when the couple are camping and end up in the woods. The cyclical nature, the vicious circle, of grief is brilliantly articulated by the repetition of their nightmare. In The Broken Circle Breakdown the narrative is a spiral down and expresses anger at the American ban of gene cell therapy, which may have saved the child. Hence, the American music context of the film: Johan Heldenbergh’s Didier loves the country but rails against Bush’s relgious convictions that prevent research.

Koko-di isn’t situated in a particular time and place, though the Nordic woods are particularly spooky with the bleached-out light, and is more effective for it. The pain has a universal quality that intensifies the nightmare and it’s clear that suffering the death of a child is likely to get you waking up screaming.

In Fabric (UK-Hungary 2018)

The sales staff at Dentley & Soper

In Fabric is easily recognisable as a Peter Strickland film. Few directors have such a ‘personal style’. This fourth feature is perhaps the most removed from the first film, Katalin Varga (UK-Romania-Hungary, 2009) and closer to the other two, Berberian Sound Studio (UK-Germany, 2012) and The Duke of Burgundy (UK-Hungary, 2014). It is the first of Strickland’s films to be set in the UK and this perhaps makes the film ‘feel’ different.

Strickland’s films are absurdist and include elements of horror and comedy and the kind of erotica associated with European exploitation films. They also feature avant-garde soundtracks, on this occasion from Cavern of Anti-Matter based in Berlin. Some audiences find the films impenetratable, some find them comic and others are morally outraged. In this one there are numerous vaginal symbols and an anatomically correct mannequin with synthetic pubic hair – which gets a credit for the designer of the hair, much like the ‘human toilet consultant’ on The Duke of Burgundy.

A brief plot outline (no spoilers)

Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) is a bank teller in ‘Thames Valley-upon Thames’ (Strickland is associated with Reading). She is divorced from her husband and lives with her teenage son Vince and whose older girlfriend Gwen (Gwendoline Christie) often ‘stays over’. Sheila starts trying to date again and buys a striking red dress in a sale from the local department store, Dentley & Soper (some customers of the John Lewis store in Reading – originally Heelas – will wonder what went on there!). Sheila makes a bad decision! The dress has a life of its own. The narrative follows what happens to those who attempt to ‘own’ and wear the dress.

Sheila tries on the dress . . .

Commentary

The story is set in an indeterminate period of the recent past when life was still ‘analogue’. Sheila answers a ‘lonely hearts’ ad in a newspaper and nobody uses mobile phones. The mise en scène generally evokes the 1970s-90s. Although the European touches are still there, this time they take second place to a set of British signifiers which point to ‘horror anthology series’ such as the Amicus films of the 1970s or TV series such as Tales of the Unexpected from the 1980s. In Fabric offers two or possibly three stories associated with the red dress. The European elements include the strange sales assistants at the department store who are dressed in what one reviewer described as ‘Victorian mourning outfits’ and who speak in an almost unintelligible formal language. These women (and the male manager) indulge in various dubious activities in the store’s cellar, accessed by a dumb waiter. I did enjoy the store’s old-fashioned vacuum tube system for sending payments to its accounts office. I was reminded of how shops functioned in the 1950s. I note that the effects team on the production all appeared to be Hungarian. The other European horror element comes from Dario Argento’s gialli.

. . . Sheila helped by Miss Luckmoore (Fatma Mohamed)

It took me a while to work out which role Sidse Babett Knudsen plays in the film since she is credited first in the cast list on screen. I wondered if this was a joke (she starred in the previous film, The Duke of Burgundy). Eventually I realised that she was the model in the store catalogue wearing the ‘Ambassadorial Function Dress’ in ‘Artery Red’. It is this attention to detail that remains a joy in Strickland’s films. As well as the great design, Strickland has a strong cast. Marianne Jean-Baptiste best known for her role in Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies and Hayley Squires from Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake might seem like odd choices but their casting works well. Romanian actor Fatma Mohamed appeared in Strickland’s two previous films and she gives In Fabric its most distinctive character. Most of the rest of the cast is from British TV and the supporting casts of British films.

What to make of all this? Perhaps because of the specific genre elements, this may have been more accessible to audiences than the three earlier films. The people behind me in the cinema laughed and gasped and seemed to be having a good time. In the credits I noted that Ben Wheatley was an executive producer. I don’t know how much, if any, influence he had on the film. I heard someone in the cinema mention Wheatley’s Sightseers (UK 2012) when they read the credit. I’ve only seen Sightseers of Wheatley’s films and because, I didn’t really enjoy it, I haven’t looked for the others. Perhaps this is why I found In Fabric felt different from Strickland’s earlier films? (I realise now two of In Fabric‘s cast have appeared in Wheatley’s films.)

Peter Strickland is a talented filmmaker and I will seek out his next film. In Fabric should be out on DVD in the UK as well as on VOD from Curzon.

Greta (Ireland-US-South Korea 2018)

At first Frances and Greta get along fine . . .

Surprisingly, this is Neil Jordan’s first cinema film since Byzantium in 2012. He seems to have spent the intervening years working on two TV series and writing a couple of novels. It’s always good to see him back on the big screen and Greta shares some of the same elements as Byzantium, though the genre base has shifted from vampires to psychological horror with distinctive gothic touches. The principal characters are again played by talented female actors having a lot of fun. As Nick suggested after the screening, Greta is perhaps best described as ‘classy schlock’. I certainly found it entertaining and there might be something else there which a second viewing might illuminate – or not!

The premise is straightforward. Frances (Chloë Grace Moretz) is a young woman down from university in Massachusetts and now waitressing in an upmarket restaurant in New York at a difficult time in her life after her mother’s death and her father’s distant behaviour. She has a flatmate Erica (Maika Monroe) who appears to be a follower of ‘wellness’ regimes and the like. One day Frances finds an expensive handbag on the subway and takes it in person to the strange little house owned by Greta Hideg (Isabelle Huppert). Erica had warned her not to meet Greta, but initially Frances doesn’t mind the company of someone she sees as a lonely older woman and a social relationship begins. She learns that Greta is missing her own daughter’s company. But the initial companionship won’t last long. Greta is not someone you want to let into your life . . .

Frances with her flatmate Erica. What is Erica’s role in the narrative going to be?

Greta is an unsettling film to watch. Although set in New York, the film was shot in Toronto and Dublin and Greta’s house and the restaurant where Frances works are odd locations. The film is shot beautifully by Seamus McGarvey (and presented from a 4K DCP in Bradford) and edited by Nick Emerson – a pair of Northern Irishmen to go with Sligo-born Neil Jordan. The music is by Javier Navarrete who composed for Byzantium and earlier for Guillermo del Toro’s Spanish films Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone. Nick was particularly taken by the sound design by Stefan Henrix. Sound is still and ‘understudied’ aspect of film narratives and on a first viewing/listening I find it difficult to analyse any sequence in detail. What I did notice in Greta was that apart from the very obvious music cueing of certain sequences (which works well I think) there is also a harshness and jarring effect coming through the combination of cinematography, editing and sound effects. From the limited amount of promotional material on the film that I’ve seen, Jordan (who co-wrote the script with Ray Wright, one-time collaborator with both George A. Romero and Wes Craven) wanted to look back to 1980s/90s thrillers like Fatal Attraction. What he seems to have achieved is a strange mix of that earlier period of thrillers sliding into horror with some modern concerns and characters. In this respect the casting of Moretz as the ‘up and coming’ young actor, pitted against Huppert seems a good choice. And while the mise en scène seems to look back, the use of modern phone technologies is well integrated in the narrative.

Domesticity seems an unlikely outcome for this relationship

Once Greta’s behaviour teeters over into the clearly dangerous Jordan cranks up the pace, scrambling through the gears and the last third of the film is highly conventional but presented with real panache and one or two clever turns. It also includes an oddly humorous gruesome moment perhaps inspired by the Korean team working on the effects. Neil Jordan fans will also enjoy the brief appearance of Stephen Rea, the actor who most of all reminds us of Jordan’s early successes.

Greta has received very mixed reviews and similarly mixed responses from audiences. I think it works because Moretz takes her role seriously and plays it for real and Huppert is her usual marvellous self revelling in playing Liszt on the piano and dancing round the strange little room she inhabits. She’s made well over 100 films but I suspect she remembers some similar roles and characters she played for Chabrol. There are holes in the plot and you need to suspend belief but Jordan and his team create genuine excitement throughout the final section. I’m not going to show the trailer as it gives too much away. See it for the performances of the three women.

GFF19 #13: Level 16 (Canada 2018)

Katie Douglas as Vivien leads the girls on yet another trip between rooms with the same depressing colours

Level 16 is an SF thriller, directed by Danishka Esterhazy. SF/science fiction/horror is one of the strengths of Anglophone Canadian cinema and since I’m keen to see SF and Canadian films, especially by women, it seemed an obvious choice for me to book. What I hadn’t realised was that this screening was at the beginning of the first full day of ‘FrightFest’ as a festival within the main festival. Sitting on the front row (numbered seating instead of the usual unreserved) in a jam-packed GFT1 was a new experience. I’ve never seen so many cinemagoers in black T-shirts together before. This was all generally good fun but the announcements and promos and a short film extended the running time of the slot considerably. When I finally escaped the theatre I discovered that I had 1 minute before my next (2 hours plus) feature. That’s not good!

Danishka Esterhazy directs Celina Martin as ‘Sophia’ on set

Level 16 was preceded by a short video welcome/introduction by Danishka Esterhazy on a recording (she’s currently shooting in Hawaii) and she told us that this was a film inspired to some extent by her own schooling. She must have had a grim time. The film is set in the very near future or alternative present and focuses on a group of teenage girls in a mysterious boarding school. They are never allowed out of their windowless rooms on the grounds that the air/light outside will damage their skin. Each day they are put through rituals of learning about appropriate behaviour for young ladies, but not much conventional academic learning. They wear long concealing dresses and take medication each day (described as vitamins). They are taught via TV screens, old ‘public service’ films and Hollywood classics. Each girl is named after a classic Hollywood beauty and the two central characters are ‘Vivien’ and ‘Sophia’. The only two adults they see most of the time are the tall, glamorous blonde Miss Brixil and the seemingly kindly Dr Miro. But if they are punished, the girls are taken away by black-clad ‘guards’ and put in ‘solitary’. If they are obedient the girls gradually progress to the next ‘level’ and when they reach ‘Level 16’ they believe that prospective adoptive parents/employers are going to select them to live in beautiful homes. These visitors come to see the girls who are presented in a drug-induced sleep. However, it is inevitable that one day a girl is going to rebel and avoid the medication. Once she realises what is happening will she be able to convince the others who, after years of indoctrination and drug regimes are likely to be resistant? Is it possible for the girls to act collectively given their histories?

Miss Brixil (Sarah Canning) addresses the girls of Level 16

The ‘prison break’ or POW escape offers another genre repertoire from which to draw alongside the girls school, horror and SF repertoires, but it means that the pacing and tone of the narrative changes significantly in the final section. Up until the last five  minutes I thought the film worked well but I found the ending rushed and unconvincing. However, the large audience of ‘fright fans’ seemed to be appreciative. Certainly, it is an intelligent film which uses its limited budget effectively. The performances from the four principal actors, all experienced in Canadian TV and film, are very effective. I was intrigued to read about Danishka Esterhazy’s background as a member of the Winnipeg Film Group and her frustration to try to get this film made as set out in an interview on the SYFY Wire website. The long struggle took around ten years with familiar problems in finding funding for this ‘feminist dystopian thriller’ with a whole catalogue of sexist assumptions about what should be in a film like this and how the girls should be presented. In the meantime, Esterhazy made other features that were more attractive to funders, including as she describes it:

a Brontë novel, but set in Canada. Which I thought was like, ‘You think my sci-fi film’s weird, my Canadian Brontë film is really weird!’

That Brontë reference is also an indicator of the kind of research Esterhazy undertook since Level 16 benefits from a study of Victorian etiquette books and ideas about how young women should behave. I think that Level 16 would be an interesting film to show to students, because of the way it confounds that array of assumptions (e.g. teenage girls won’t watch SF, women don’t direct SF, there needs to be a romance etc.). It also offers a useful comparison with more traditional SF films on similar topics such as the two Stepford Wives films and something like Never Let Me Go (UK-US 2010) with its much higher cultural status. The success of The Handmaid’s Tale on TV probably helps as well.