Sitges 2011: 22ND OF MAY Review

Todd Brown, Founder and Editor

[With Koen Mortier's 22nd Of May now screening in Sitges we revisit our earlier review.]

With his searing debut Ex Drummer Belgian director Koen Mortier burst onto the scene with a sort of punk rock bravado, a raw and abrasive style laid atop remarkable technical skills and a surprising amount of soul for those willing to muck about in the filth of his characters' lives to find it. With 22nd of May - his sophomore feature - returns to serve notice that the soul of Ex Drummer was no accident. If Ex Drummer was Irvine Welsh cranked up to eleven then 22nd of May is a sort of dark cousin to Wings of Desire era Wim Wenders, a film in which the line between the physical and the spiritual are blurred to the point that they become meaningless and the spirits of the dead roam freely with the living.

Sam Louwyck is Sam, the blue collar security guard at a small, mid level shopping center. He lives alone, his largest companion the thermos of hot coffee he takes with him to work. His life is bland, nondescript, until the day that a suicide bomber picks Sam's mall for the site of his attack. The result is devastating, so much so that Sam is simply overwhelmed at the carnage that after pulling a a pair of mangled bodies out of the destruction he simply turns and runs into the supposed security and anonymity of the city.

But the city is not what Sam expects. It is deserted. Barren. And the only souls he will encounter there are the souls of the dead, those killed in the bombing. Some are angry, angry at Sam for not protecting them. Some are mournful, aware that they will never complete the unfinished business of their lives. But all feel the need to unburden themselves, to tell their stories, and Sam will be their audience.

A sort of metaphysical response to the images of destruction splashed across screens in the nightly news, 22nd of May roams freely through a sort of purgatory as it portrays the victims of senseless destruction. It is an entirely more somber film than was Ex Drummer, one much more firmly in the arthouse camp as it abandons any sort of traditional narrative structure or much in the way of character arcs choosing to simply present a series of portraits of the victims as they were when they died. Louwyck - familiar to Mortier fans from his role in Ex Drummer - becomes the eyes of the audience, absorbing all of this loss while trying to come to terms with his own failings.

As befits the material the visuals here are much 'smaller', for the most part, than they were in Ex Drummer but that is not to suggest that Mortier is hiding away his skills - rather he's just harnessing them in a different way. In its early, starkly unvarnished portrayal of Sam's home life Mortier opens with a roaming, deceptively well choreographed single take shot that runs to nearly four minutes that provides a sort of visual explanation of our lead character, telling us all that we really need to know about him. Likewise, as the film progresses we realize that what seemed like an early, basic crowd shot was actually a tightly choreographed introduction to each of the major players in the film. This is a film that rewards those who pay attention. Details matter. As for the bombing itself, we get that twice. The first time it plays as starkly real, purely from Sam's perspective outside the building - the blast throwing him forward and temporarily deafening him. Then, at the end, we experience it again, this time from inside the building in a stunning slow motion sequences that shows the literal impact of the blast on each of those caught within it in staggering detail.

Though far less commercially minded than his first picture, 22nd of May is no less remarkable a piece of work, one that immensely broadens the understanding of who Mortier really is and what he is really capable of. If Ex Drummer suggested the arrival of a major talent, 22nd of May confirms it.
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