Friday, August 12, 2011

Fantasia 2011 Feedback: Marianne

Marianne (2011, Filip Tegstedt)

Some of the best horror stories are those which succeed in exploring the inner complexities of mankind.  They not only serve the more immediate purpose of entertaining the viewer, but equally help explore and possibly remind ourselves of what we are. In other words, they serve as a mirror into ourselves and can simplify, to a degree, our fears and anxieties. First time writer-director Swedish director Filip Tegstedt takes his own stab at the ghost story genre with his debut Marianne, which premiered at the Fantasia film festival earlier this summer. Focussing on serious family drama and the supernatural, it was one the event’s most eagerly anticipated films, largely in part because of the masterful poster artwork (see above) which graced the hall where the festival box office was located at Concordia university.

Krister, played by Thomas Hedengran, is in the midst of a crisis. His wife died not long ago as the result of a freakish car accident involving another vehicle. His relationship with his wife had experienced some rocky chapters. The film subtly reveals through dialogue exchanges with his Emo daughter Sandra (Sandra Larsson) that Krister was not the most faithful husband. Added to this trauma is the reality that he and Sandra do not get along very well, with the teenage girl placing the blame for her disappointing family life squarely on him, and, to top it all off, there is the new baby Krister and his wife had just before she died that needs caring. Since a short time ago, almost every night Krister is visited in his room by a large spectre wearing high heel shoes. Whether the fatigue and stress are playing wicked tricks on him or if his nocturnal visitor truly exists remains a mystery for now. Sleep deprivation related issues or actual ghost?

Filip Tegstedt’s Marianne reminded me very much of another film discovered at Fantasia this year, Another Earth, wherein a supernatural plot point is utilized at the jumping pad for telling a compelling human drama. At the heart of the film is the ongoing war of words between Krister the father and his rebellious daughter Sandra. Not only does the latter have some attitudinal problems, but Krister has not done himself any favours either due to his promiscuous ways or occasionally harsh mannerisms. One would not exactly say that he is a highly strict father, but he certainly has a clear vision of how his children should behave and not listening to one’s father is problematic. This hypocrisy, one in which Krister demands Sandra to follow his rules whereas he himself could not follow the traditional rules of marriage, does not improve the situation one iota and only compounds the problematic relationship between the two. This single father, who teaches at a local school, pays visits to a psychologist to share some of his innermost thoughts as well as his sleeping issues. Professional help at that level can only go so far, seeing as how the more Krister recounts his unpleasant experiences with the evil shape in his room at nights, the more the psychologist believes that Krister might be suffering from something far greater than just some stress and sleep depravity. Much acclaim should go to the actor at the center of it all, Thomas Hedengran. He successfully balances out the many facets one would expect a person in his position and with his character to expose. He does want to help what family he has left yet is stubborn about certain parenting issues. The weight of the recent tragic events has not subsided, making the personal struggle all the more epic. Hedengran is excellent in the role. 

The film adeptly meshes the world of Krister’s unravelling private life with the bizarre if disappointingly brief sequences when the ghost appears. The sense of mystery surrounding its insistent presence is palpable enough to grab the viewer’s attention and force him or her to ask some questions. Why is the creature haunting Krister? What relationship does it have with him? What is it? The film eventually acquiesces to answering those and more queries the audience might have had. Said explanations are provided by Sandra’s current boyfriend Stiff, played very lively and light by the wonderful Dylan M. Johansson. Stiff is mesmerized by Swedish folklore and any sort of ghost and monster related myths. His inside knowledge into this mysterious world provides Krister with some much needed information, especially when the spectre begins to take notice of other people in the house, like Sandra and the baby. Without giving much away, some of the reasoning behind the creature’s existence are a little too conveniently tied into Krister’s past, but the context is still a welcome addition to the later stages of the plot and, to an extent,  work into the emotional journey Krister must traverse. It is a case where the past is, for all intents and purposes, coming back to haunt him. The deeply emotional and troubling has suddenly become the surreal, which is fantastic in any solid horror film.

A few words should be written about the special night time visits themselves, for as infrequent as those scenes are, they are freakishly effective as conveying as strong sense of dread. This spectre is not kind hearted at all and we do not even need to fully see it (which we do not until the very end) to understand that it has malevolent intentions. Virtually everything about those scenes, from the vantage point of the viewer, to the sound design to their conclusions is unforgettable. Rarely as this movie review been as tense as I was during those precious moments of scares while watching Marianne.  Great filmmaking will pay heed to the attention to detail, and every little detail about the ghost in Marianne is spot on and highly effective. Kudos to director Filip Tagstedt. One scene in particular (I wish I could go into detail, but spoiler-free reviews are what I prefer to share) was ridiculously intense, and I can only thank the director for delivering on the promise of great chills. 

While on the whole Marianne is an impressive debut, there is one directorial decision that I am still wrestling with since discovering the movie a couple weeks ago. The film’s story appears split into two halves, the second being when Stiff plays a larger role in helping Krister fend off the ghostly apparition. Everything up until that point has been rather bleak, playing as a rich and harsh family drama in which most of the characters are deeply wounded. The second half, partly because the character of Stiff is somewhat of a goof, plays much lighter. That transformation in the film’s tone is odd for two reasons. One would have thought that as the business with the ghost gets more intense, the more serious the film would be. Admittedly, many of the comedic scenes do see their jokes land perfectly, but the shift felt a bit at odds with what was happening. The second reason has to do with the moment in the story when this second half commences. It is the result of a horrific, tragic incident which holds nothing funny at all, so to see the movie suddenly embrace some laughter from that point onward did not feel entirely justified.

Despite what few weaknesses that prevent Filip Tegstedt from earning top marks, Marianne is without a doubt a good movie, blessed with some exceptionally good scares and a fine leading actor. Most importantly, it crafts an interesting family story and explores the unit’s bruised dynamics through the prism of a good old fashioned ghost tale.

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