Fantasia 2011: MARIANNE Review

Krister is feeling the boot-heel of karma kick him pretty hard for his past transgressions.  After abandoning his wife, Eva, and daughter, Sandra, for a secret mistress, he grudgingly returns to support them when Eva has an unplanned pregnancy.  The years of juggling a dual-life between his wife and daughter and his mistress have resulted in his lovely blonde 10 year-old rebelling into a goth-and-piercing lifestyle, complete with dropping out of school and dating a significantly older boy, a slacker pothead who believes in elves and wicca.  This is how Krister sees things and compensates with authoritarian airs after his disregard.  Life goes on with a young baby girl in the house and a storm cloud of resentment between Eva and Sandra over Krister's flip-flopping and Eva's ability to forgive.  The breaking point arrives on an evening with Sandra babysitting at home with her parents out on a date.  A nasty car accident en route to the restaurant leaves Eva dead and Krister reaping all the grief he has sown on an single event that was (Swedish black irony?) beyond his control.   Left with one daughter that hates him and an infant that cries all night for its absent mother who will never return, the fresh widower begins to suffer from a severe case of insomnia.  It is a potentially paralytic one according to his therapist (the always wonderful Peter Stormare) as a recurring nightmare of a ghost with clicking high heels and a shrieking wail constricts his chest and will not let him rest.  Marianne draws its folklore DNA from the Nordic Mare, which not coincidentally (if one is etymologically inclined) is the latter half of the word "nightmare."  

The challenge for this haunting drama, that is a drama about haunting, to find its audience may be a mighty one.  It is far too restrained for the genre crowd, even by the high standard of drama-before-horror set by its Swedish cousin, Let The Right One In.  And yet the film prominently features its lead being haunted by a spectre from the folklore of northern Sweden; a marketing hook no publicity department is going to let slip.  The trap is to avoid false expectations.  Brimming with guilt anxiety and father failure, tonally it is somewhere between Alex De La Iglesia's The Baby's Room and Stanley Kubrick's The Shining.  Shot in northern Sweden, far enough north that the sun only goes down far enough to achieve a hazy twilight state:  Kristen's state of mind, and his own cognizance of adult responsibility.  First time filmmaker Filip Tegstedt has lensed a film with surprisingly mature visual polish on a shoestring budget which nevertheless liquidated his life savings.  Clearly the director has a thing for Kubrick's Stephen King adaptation, as Marianne features several arresting Steadicam shots and favours long takes, both of which are attuned to the characters or films states of being.  An opening overhead vehicle shot echoes the master without looking like direct theft and a scene late in the film features Krister as a deadringer for a certain lowered (and low-lit) Jack Torrance Neanderthal-brow.  

But similarities end there, as human drama takes front and center over the supernatural.  While Krister tries in vain to step up as a father figure, his daughter moves out with her boyfriend, who takes an interest in Krister's problems, offering him a folklore cure.  Convinced that the spirit is real, and spurred on, much to the chagrin of her daughter, by his new 'spiritual adviser,' Krister falls further into his delusional funk.  Nevertheless, I like how the film has it both ways, folklore vs. Freud.  When father and daughter attempt to come to grips with the gulf caused by yet a further tragedy (which I certainly won't spoil)  their scene is emotional and honest enough to make my cynical eyes well up.  This is a credit to the top shelf cast giving performances that belie the genre of film they are in.  Veteran Swedish TV star Thomas Hedengran gives a stellar performance, anchoring a character who is at all turns unlikable, but disarmingly earns a form audience forgiveness.  This might be as much due to the direction.  Take the aforementioned Steadicam work which follows Krister chasing ghosts in slow motion down a corridor.  The shot somehow, and I will venture against all odds, exudes sympathy with simple camera language.  The few nightmare scenes are more than successful at indicating the degree of emotional torment resulting from pent up guilt and engendering empathy from anyone who has screwed up in one capacity or another and lost a few nights sleep over it.  

Hedengran has great chemistry with young actress Sandra Larsson, and their big scene, perhaps a moment where she becomes the adult and he regresses to the child, is a moment that justifies all of the careful character and family moments which occupy the bulk of the films running time.  As the story grimly, but quite believably, marches into Edgar Allen Poe territory all the pieces laid in place over the course of the film coagulate into a cohesive (and unconventional) whole.  After all, this is a film about the physical and mental effects guilt. As more and more is piled on, transgressions real or imagined, the likelyhood of being crushed, either mentally and physically (but likely both) by the burden approaches certainty.  Tegstedt offers no cheap thrills.  There are no CGI beasties or sound induced jumpscares, both typically a requisite for the genre.  Rather he plays things logically to its haunting conclusion.

A film that subtly uses the language of domestic drama to craft a realistic and true horror film is a brave thing to attempt with a first feature.  Somebody, please, get Guillermo del Toro in contact with Philip Tegstedt because here is a young director with the chops to make a The Devil's Backbone or a Pan's Labyrinth if he were given the finances and freedom to do so.  In fact, he may well already have done the former with Marianne.  By that yardstick, I'd like to see him have a crack at something along the lines of the latter.
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