Tone Tests: Borgman, Enemy, Unnatural History, and Housebound

FILM, Film Festivals,
img_borgman2Between the films of Alex van Warmerdam, Denis Villeneuve, Alex Backhouse, and Gerard Johnstone at this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival, tone is everything.

It’s the first question anyone asks if you recommend an unfamiliar film, something that happens a lot during the New Zealand International Film Festival: “What’s that about?” There’s a commonly shared bias, perhaps, in discussing story and subject matter first and tone second, third or not at all. This may be because tone seems more subjective: one person’s “hypnotic” is another person’s “tedious,” one person’s “moving” is another’s “manipulative.”

But I would argue tone is everything. Every movie you love could easily be destroyed by telling the same story in an overly arch or overly somber register, and your relationship to a movie could prove fitfully off simply by entering with the wrong tonal expectations. (I had this experience with The Tale of Princess Kaguya, where I was unprepared for its move to a melancholic tonal register; it’s a fantastic film, but I resisted it because I wanted it to remain in the simple and joyous register of the first 20 minutes.) Even if you think you love a movie simply because it’s a story well-told, I’ll argue that “well-told” aspect is in the tone.

If tone is everything, though, it’s also often vexingly hard to communicate its exactitude in miniature. Tweets leading up to Enemy and Borgman had both emphasised their “dark” and “confusing” nature, and I entered into my double-feature Thursday evening expecting somewhat similar rides. But while there are some exceedingly superficial similarities between the two films—some elements of ambiguity, dysfunctional male-female relationships, and scars, most notably—60 seconds of either film is enough to show they’re incredibly different beasts.

img_borgman1I vastly preferred Borgman, which featured in Cannes 2013 but was overlooked there and in last year’s programme. Rescued by Drafthouse Films in the States, it’s received a berth this year in the Incredibly Strange section, which means that a certain number of genre enthusiasts will automatically attend it (keying in on the words “home-invasion,” evoking memories of You’re Next and Ils), and a certain number of genteel film buffs will automatically ignore it.

What makes Borgman the rare beast that can share an audience on the Croisette and genre buffs in part is its refusal to tip its hand too far tonally. After a semi-comic prologue that shows Camiel (Jan Bijovet) and his mates being uprooted from their underground dwelling, the film settles into the activities around a house where Camiel, having simply asked for a bath, has been refused and instead been beaten by the patriarch of the household. Rather than leave, he hides on the property in a guesthouse, tended to by the lady of the house, and gradually ingratiates himself. All the while, he collaborates with colleagues in preparing a sinister plot involving poisoning, surgical tools, gardening, and a constantly burgeoning body count.

Alex van Warmerdam’s film has been compared to Dogtooth and Funny Games, and while the former is more apposite than the latter, neither quite captures the spirit of it. It’s not as sadistic or bloodthirsty as either of those films, and apart from one shot it’s surprisingly genteel in its depiction of gore. By withholding genre tropes (for instance, rarely relying on score), it doesn’t create the same frissons as the typical home-invasion film, but instead inhabits a place where humor, surprise, and shock can show up one after the other, in unpredictable patterns. As the narrative adds more unexplained phenomena, the viewer will likely start pondering whether an allegorical reading is intended, and if so, what the allegory actually is. (I spent a few minutes trying to work out if Camiel is intended to be Bin Laden. I’m reasonably sure he’s not, and post-film research verifies that an opening title card points to a more textually supported alternative.) While a little more explanation might not have gone amiss—what is with the greyhounds?—it’s not as if you can’t say what happens in the film, even if you can’t say why. And moment by moment, van Warmerdam’s consistent play with expectations and perfect pitch for underplayed gags (that popsicle stick!) is hugely satisfying.

img_enemyWhereas Borgman gains interest from tonal ambiguity, Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy is a 90-minute jackhammer of one-note tone. Which is highly disappointing, as the premise of dueling doppelgangers (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) trying to work out how they have come to inhabit an identical universe is rife with promise. But from its urine-hued cinematography to the fifty shades of beige production design, the visual tone is set for unleavened oppression, with drones and funereally paced performances combining to create a relentlessly portentous atmosphere that teeters into the unintentionally comic.

I shouldn’t have been surprised, as Villeneuve’s previous (acclaimed) Incendies and (not-so-acclaimed) Prisoners also show a distractingly heavy hand tonally. But Enemy promised something different, and to be fair, it does: rather than milking melodramatic plot twists, Enemy relies on sustaining viewer interest from narrative obliqueness, providing a confusing scenario for which there may or may not be a logical explanation. None of the explanations I’ve found online have been particularly satisfying; to suggest that “it’s all in (either Jake’s) head,” the most popular response, can’t account for scenes from another POV. I won’t argue that there isn’t an explanation, and certainly trying to find one has engaged many viewers, but if you’re wanting a complex narrative to grapple with, there are better choices on offer; REALITi, for instance, or even the short that preceded Enemy.

img_unnaturalhistoryUnnatural History, written, directed, and edited by Alex Backhouse, uses the mockumentary format to explore the results of energy field experiments performed by now-disappeared American scientist Theo Velasquez. British filmmaker Chris Petit provides narration that gives the work an air of authority even as the film enters the improbable, and it’s this tension that creates satisfaction. The mystery of Velasquez’s disappearance is just one of many story threads that aren’t conventionally ‘resolved’, but the assuredness of the tone of the film carries us across formats (from old-school video to gorgeous HD shots of the Rangipo Desert), through narration-free spaces where “the hum” (the phenomena being studied) grows or recedes, and into a trippy coda that should deeply satisfy fans of Phase IV. I was also reminded of Beyond the Black Rainbow and the films of Peter Watkins at points: all deeply unpopular works that I love, and I’m thrilled to see a Kiwi filmmaker working in this wildly uncommercial space. More, please.

img_houseboundWhile Unnatural History seems to have been largely uncommented on, another New Zealand film secured its position as the breakout film of the festival by nailing its crowdpleasing tone. Writer/director/editor Gerard Johnstone’s debut feature Housebound played to packed houses in Auckland and Wellington in advance of its September release, and it’s absolutely a film to see with an audience. Everyone involved has gone to great lengths to make it clear that Housebound is a popcorn entertainment film with no great claims to art, its self-proclaimed forebears being Ghostbusters and Scooby-Doo instead of Godard and Straub-Huillet. (I did find Johnstone’s claims that his film has nothing to do with cultural identity rather dubious; this is a deeply Kiwi film, and there’s nothing wrong with that.)

The triumph of Housebound—one that’s especially impressive after Johnstone revealed in a post-film Q&A that the first two-thirds of the film were basically thrown out and rewritten, bar a dinner scene, after the initial shoot—is tonal, maintaining the fine balance between comedy, horror, and plausible characters. Laughs and screams happen in equal measure, and whereas a film like Borgman stands at a remove to let viewers react in their own way, Housebound plays with viewer expectation in a deep, knowing way, maintaining unpredictability and engagement.

It’s this absolute confidence that carries Housebound through a few leaps of logic and the occasional budget limitation, a certainty only surprising for a “first-time director” if you haven’t seen Johnstone’s previous work on The Jaquie Brown Diaries. I thought of Edgar Wright from time to time, a director with a similar interest in precision, genre, and well-crafted gags who cut his teeth in television. To suggest Johnstone is “the next Edgar Wright” is reductive, but if he can find a place in the multiplexes of New Zealand on a regular basis, we’ll be better off for it. Meanwhile, I hold out little hope that there will be room in the multiplexes for a feature from Alex Backhouse, or the next van Warmerdam film, but then: that’s what film festivals are for.

Borgman (Alex van Warmerdam, Netherlands, 2013)

Screening: Auckland | Wellington

Enemy (Denis Villeneuve, Canada/Spain, 2013)
Unnatural History (Alex Backhouse, NZ)

Screening: Auckland | Wellington

Housebound (Gerard Johnstone, NZ)

Screening: Auckland | Wellington | Dunedin | Christchurch | Other