Red Knot: Liebstod in the Antarctic Snow

in 40th Seattle International Film Festival

by Gerald Peary

It never gets tired as a critic, being there at the world premiere for a film of originality and worth. And so it was for our FIPRESCI jury at the 40th Seattle International Film Festival. How exciting to give our prize to Red Knot, an American independent feature of ravishing formal beauty, with a most unusual story, and marked by potent acting performances, especially by the winsome lead, Olivia Thirlby. A work in every way of consummate professionalism. Red Knot was navigated, we learned, by a first-time writer-director, Scott Cohen. A name totally unknown to us.

Hence, I¹ve done my Web homework to learn a bit more. Prior to Red Knot, Cohen has been a New York-based photographer who shows at a prominent Soho Gallery. He describes his works as “photographic travelogues”, and they combine classic still photographic imagery with sampling of filmmaking. He characterizes these as “large-scale pigment and platinum plates”. As for Red Knot: actress Thirlby noted in a recent interview that, among her many indie projects, this was a film which she especially loved making. It was shot, she said, three years ago, and much of the dialogue was daringly improvised. She said she’s been waiting eagerly for Cohen to finish it.

Red Knot is finally done, perhaps missing 2014 deadlines for Sundance, SXSW, and Tribeca. Or did they reject it? The Seattle Film Festival was the wise venue to play it first.

Does Red Knot, the title, have a symbolic meaning? Something to do with the strangulation of love relations? Perhaps. Literally, it’s the name of the research vessel in which 17 people voyage south from Argentina to sail toward the South Pole in springtime. Peter (Mad Men’s Vincent Kartheisen) is a young scientist of naked ambition. He convinces his new wife, Chloe (Thirlby) to accompany him on this trip. He wants to bond with, suck up to, an established scientist who, with his spouse, is taking the journey also. It’s Roger Payne, the esteemed marine biologist. The real Roger Payne appearing as Himself. Among other accomplishments, he was the co-discoverer, in 1967, of one of the world’s true splendors: the songs of the humpbacked whales.

Red Knot starts in ethnography, in semi-documentary. My intuition is that this was a bonafide expedition, and that many of the background people were paid passengers. They signed on for, along with other voyager delights, a chance to eavesdrop on the spoken wisdoms of Payne. Among the 17 are, blended in by Cohen, his actors, Kartheisen and Thirlby, as the newlywed couple. We see the two of them attending Payne’s informal lectures, and, in casual conversations, chatting up Payne and Katharine, Payne’s real-life wife. The Paynes speak as themselves, appearing oblivious to the fact those they address are fictional characters!

The above is interesting enough, this Pirandellian arena where actor and non-actor converge/converse. But Cohen makes an even more bold, arresting aesthetic choice. Whereas his narrative is rooted in “reality” — a real trip to the South Pole with real people making that trip — his fictive tale weaved in soars to the magical, mythic, self-consciously poetic. Nature speaks! Torrential storms, ice peaks as mammoth and ominous as Melville’s killer white whale, islands of penguins squashed in like sardines, a walrus baying at the passing ship as if a vigilant watchdog. Yes, it’s a psychic journey, and the storms are like the tempests in the hearts of the soon-feuding married couple, and the ice is like their frigid relationship. Has Scott Cohen studied expressionist German silent cinema? It’s all here, subjectivity unbound.

Considering Red Knot’s central love triangle, I couldn’t help recalling F.W. Murnau’s sublime Sunrise (1927), with its unidentified three characters: the Man, the Wife, and, for a while between them, the Woman from the City. Though they have names, Cohen’s protagonists could also be the Man, the Wife, and, separating them, The Captain (Billy Campbell). When the Wife can take no more of her selfish husband, she finds solace in the Captain’s company. He’s a wonderful type: tall, erect, humble, taciturn, and Gary Cooper-shy. He can’t look into the Wife’s eyes, either before or after they make love. Off-screen. There’s an extraordinary moment of eros when Zoe appears at his portal in her pajamas. She daringly enters, Cohen discreetly cuts away! Appropriately, the act of adultery crude? romantic? — is something for our imagination.

And the film’s ending? I can’t tell you, but it’s more Germanic, and bravely transcendent, than even what went before: Liebestod in the Antarctic snow.

Edited by Amber Wilkinson