Another Earth' Rises Above the Competition

in 64th Locarno International Film Festival

by Günter Jekubzik

Only a few films of the 2011 Locarno competition managed to successfully combine several themes and storylines. This is no quality in itself, but just glances at the many homages to famous filmmakers showed that film can be simultaneously sophisticated and entertaining. Above all, a look into the varied forms and genre subjects of the Vincente Minnelli retrospective made the competition look shallow, with no burning issues or daring aesthetics.

A documentary about Swiss deportation (Special Flight [Vol spécial] by Fernand Melgar), an animation about a fatal hunger strike in a Polish prison (Crulic — The Path to Beyond [Crulic — drumul spre dincolo] by Anca Damian), the universal hostility towards foreigners in Japan (Saudade, Katsuya Tomita) — nothing brought up big emotions or thoughts. Hopes that festival-director Olivier Père would be able to make the most of his contacts from his time running always excellent Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes have not yet been realised.

In the French contributions — the pretentious art-talkie-film Low Life by Nicolas Klotz and Elisabeth Perceval and the immature Goodbye, First Love (Un amour de jeunesse) by Mia Hansen-Løve—Père’s connections even seemed to work out in a bad way (the Franco-German co-production disappointed as the successor to Hansen-Løve’s Father of My Children (Le père de mes enfants).

There were, however, exceptions — such as Another Earth. Actress-writer Brit Marling and director Mike Cahill presented in their Sundance success a thrilling combination of drama and science fiction. After an accident with fatal consequences, a young woman, tortured by guilt, searches for hope at the firmament. A second Earth promises a better world. 2011 will go down as the year of stargazers: After von Trier’s Melancholia and Malick’s The Tree of Life now Another Earth impresses with cosmological cinematography. While an impressive planet means the end of all in the Danish drama, it brings new hope for Rhoda Williams (Marling). Another Earth appears on the firmament — and causes the fatal accident which results in Rhoda spending four years in prison. During this time the Earth’s twin planet comes closer, governments try to make contact, and a company is already offering space-trips to ‘Earth 2’.

Rhoda stays secluded after her prison sentence. She lives with her parents, takes a cleaning job. The intelligent young woman does not speak much and then tries to kill herself. When this fails, she decides to confront her guilt. But once she encounters John Burroughs (William Mapother), the only survivor of the accident (during which he lost his wife and child) she loses her courage and pretends to offer a free cleaning service. John reluctantly accepts — his home is dearly in need of some cleaning. Slowly both find themselves lowering their defences, and life seems brighter for them. Rhoda’s hopes, however, still lies on winning a ticket for a trip to Earth 2. Recently radio contact has shown that the other Blue Planet is an exact replica of ours. Even the same people are living there. But perhaps there the accident has never happened…

Actress Brit Marling and director Mike Cahill jointly developed the screenplay for this drama with science fiction elements. It won the Special Jury Prize and the Alfred P. Sloan Prize at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. In this coherent and impressive picture the new planet stands for a second chance — just like, in times gone by, new continents were populated with convicts (as Rhoda writes in her application for the ticket.) Inner worlds are projected onto the universe, the parallel dimension of self-doubt creates a universal drama: “We are our own mirror image” says the film.

Despite the galactic reference point the quiet movie focuses on his characters: actress Marling does an impressive job. Finally, some truly touching moments — John’s solo musical performance on a household saw — and broken characters like Rhoda’s self-mutilating Indian colleague, add to this complete movie. Cahill and his traumatized protagonist finally find a surprising solution and a ‘twinned’ open-ending. In a blockbuster production this would be the cliffhanger for Another Earth 2 – but in auteur cinema it is just a great discovery.