BFI London Film Festival 2017: Rift, My Friend Dahmer, Hagazussa – A Heathen’s Curse

RIFT

Apparently the Icelandic title of Rift (Rökkur) more closely corresponds to ‘Twilight’, but that title, as the director Erlingur Thoroddsen drily points out, was already taken. Though not terribly exciting as a title, Rift is apt enough for this story of two gay men dealing with the fall-out of their break-up in a bleak landscape full of actual rifts. It is also indicative of the film’s main, er, fault: that it never quite marries scenes of supernatural menace with its post-relationship drama and tends to lurch from one to the other without sustaining the sinister intensity of its best moments.

Gunnar (Björn Stefánsson) has apparently moved on after breaking up with Einar (Sigouróur Pór Óskarsson), who has taken it less well and is holing up in a remote house, where Gunnar, concerned about his ex’s mental state, now feels obliged to join him. In a way nothing really happens – in another way, there’s too much going on: mysterious knockings at the door; a lonely, gay and possibly murderous farmer living nearby; the return of Einar’s imaginary childhood friend Leemoy; and Gunnar’s traumatic memories of abuse resurfacing.

None of this builds into anything particularly coherent, though the scary bits are often very effective and there’s something to be said for the way it starts out as being about Einar’s difficulty in getting over the split, and then brings it round to being the story of Gunnar’s trauma. Indeed, by the end I wasn’t convinced that anybody in this apart from Gunnar and a female neighbour was living and real.

Finally the (too) many possibilities are not well enough orchestrated, and while the film’s ambition to go beyond the generic is admirable, what should have been unsettlingly ambiguous appears confused.

MY FRIEND DAHMER

After this I followed the BFI’s Michael Blyth (not literally) from the Curzon Mayfair to the Prince Charles, where the audience was younger and more plentiful, for a showing of Marc Meyers’ My Friend Dahmer, exploring the teenage years of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. Turns out he was something of a misfit at school, perhaps due to his obsessive interest in dissolving dead cats in acid (‘I like bones’) but here we see him gaining a measure of popularity from ‘spazzing out’, meaning acting like he’s got cerebral palsy and pretending to have fits to the general hilarity of his classmates.

So successful is he at this that a group of smarter kids adopt him as a mascot, forming ‘the Jeffrey Dahmer Fan Club’ and using his antics to disrupt the school. While this isn’t precisely bullying, neither are these kids exactly his friends – and the more they become aware of his peculiarities, the less inclined they are to socialise with him. Meanwhile Dahmer’s home life starts to fracture as his bickering parents (impressive turns from Anne Heche and Dallas Roberts) finally split, and he turns to alcohol to get him through the school day.

None of this ‘explains’ Dahmer, whose disorder seems to lie deeper than mere psychology: it’s in the reptilian hindbrain, in the body (really it’s no surprise that his particular brand of comedy turns out to be the physical kind). So we don’t get ‘insights’ as such, but instead a kind of morbid Napoleon Dynamite that cuts off before the career proper starts, but still offers some eerie foreshadowings amid the queasy humour, like the ‘fan club’ itself, which prefigures the curious celebrity that Dahmer the serial killer courted.

Playing our hero ‘Disney kid’ Ross Lynch catches the humanity beneath the slouching zombie mien of his character, so that we could almost believe that things might have turned out different if only – well if only this was, say, a Disney film. But while the world might have been a better place if it was, I’m happy it isn’t. Well not ‘happy’ exactly, but – well, you know.

HAGAZUSSA – A HEATHEN’S CURSE

I turned out on a Sunday night for this one and then as soon as I got into the West End fell into a kind of time warp. Well, what actually happened is my watch stopped. Or at least it slowed to an eventual stop. Eventually I got to wondering why it seemed to have been 7:45 for the last hour or so, and so realised that I was late. I walked into Screen 1 at the Curzon Soho just as the film was beginning, like all those people I normally find myself inwardly cursing. Now I know better – maybe their watches stopped too.

I grabbed a seat that was not the one assigned to me and was soon caught in another time warp, drawn by the unhurried pace, impressive visuals and seductively droning soundtrack of the film into the mindset of 15th century Austria, a time ‘before psychology’, as the producer Simon Lubinski (I think it was) suggested in the Q&A.

The film’s four sections tell the story of Albrun (a captivating turn from Aleksandra Cwen), living in a shack on the outskirts of a village and regarded as a witch like her mother before her. A local woman seems to want to befriend her but this turns out to be a cruel trick, the episode presented as a kind of demonic seduction even though the woman is the representative of a Christian community.

A plague then devastates the village, which we can interpret as Albrun’s revenge if we like – certainly it spares her and her baby (of unknown origin), which, however, she then drowns after ingesting a mind-altering fungus. We could see this as a manifestation of guilt – again if we like – but what are we to make of her subsequently cooking and eating the child?

I should probably have said SPOILER ALERT some time ago.

In fact the ‘logic’ of all this is endlessly debatable, but the important thing is that it builds in a subterranean way – even a scene of Albrun washing her hair, though echoing Tarkovsky’s Mirror, carries an uncanny charge entirely its own. The fact that it can’t be fully comprehended only makes Lukas Feigelfeld’s film more authentic, creating a trance so intoxicating and elemental that even when a man behind me realised he had lost his keys (and felt the need to articulate this) I wasn’t jolted out of it (‘It’s my worst nightmare’, he said – somewhat insensitively given what was happening onscreen).

The Q&A was not the most productive it has to be said. One person only wanted to know the name of the mountain in the background of the final shot and nobody could tell him. I can’t complain though, not having contributed myself. Perhaps I should have asked if that guy found his keys.

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