Transformation was a key theme at this year’s Cinefest in Miskolc, cropping up in several films in the Official Competition. Most literal, perhaps, is the self-reinvention of Alice (Rachel Weisz), the central character – and enigma – of Joshua Marston’s Complete Unknown. We see her in a kaleidoscopic variety of lives at the start of the film, snippets of work places or home environments, each time holding a slightly different look, each time sporting a different name. Finally, we arrive in her current incarnation, as the new girlfriend of a friend of Tom (Michael Shannon), a man who, on his birthday, is being asked to reinvent his own life to help further the career of his wife (Azita Ghanizada).
Tom recognises Alice from before and over an impressively scripted birthday dinner sequence we watch his friends shift from warmly welcoming Alice to displaying thinly veiled aggression when they begin to suspect she may not be all she first appears. Marston doesn’t hold the mystery, he’s interested in what lies beneath, the possibilities – and perils – held out when life can be a ‘blank slate’, with the film itself shifting identity at around the midway point. While his premise feels rather too slight to fully satisfy the journey, Shannon and Weisz are gripping in the central roles, each displaying a longing for something the other has but unable to change sufficiently to achieve it.
It’s the acting, too, that keeps you paying attention to Drake Doremus’s derivative Equals, in particular, a magnetic performance from Kristen Stewart who has an ability to find subtlety even when none is apparent in the script. She plays Nia, a worker in a futuristic state that appears to have been designed exclusively by Ikea and Uniqlo. There, the workers live a life of studiousness, stripped of emotions, returning at night to their spartan apartments for a shower and some puzzle solving before bed. If this all sounds familiar, that’s because it is – despite the superior production and costume design, the story (devised by Doremus and scripted by Nathan Parker) is as old as the hills, pilfering ideas from everything from Romeo and Juliet to 1984 and THX 1138 (which the Cinefest programmers cleverly programmed alongside it by way of illustration).
Some in the society are suffering from Switched On Syndrome (the SOS abbreviation is just one of many plot points that are far too on the nose), a situation whereby they begin to experience feelings for others. There is no cure and the disease progresses through stages until sufferers are offered a ‘pain-free death scenario’. Nia has had the condition for months and become expert in hiding it, but when her co-worker Silas (Nicholas Hault) begins to exhibit symptoms, they find themselves drawn into a forbidden romance. Doremus never develops a sufficient sense of threat in the society he has created. While everyone is checked in and out of work, it seems that out of hours they can more or less do as they please, so that overnight stays at Silas’s apartment or a tryst in the toilets can pass unnoticed for weeks. There is also a complete lack of surprise in the story’s trajectory – what will happen to the pair when a cure becomes available? – that leaves the audience four steps ahead of the protagonists, who simply go through the motions until they catch up with us.
The most successful – and subtle – transformation on display was that set in the very real world of post-war Denmark, which proves to be a lot more brutal than Doremus’s icy future. In Martin Zandvliet’s Land of Mine (Under sandet), which won three awards at the festival including the FIPRESCI prize, we are asked to transform our own preconceptions about German soldiers, as we watch a young cohort of them forced to defuse land mines on the beach. Accompanying us on the journey is Danish Sergeant Carl Rassmussen (Roland Møller), a man whose hatred of his country’s former occupiers thrums through every muscle. Zandvliet’s film gradually picks at this raw emotion as the army man becomes increasingly attached to his very young prisoners, resulting in a resonant and powerfully humanistic story of transformation through redemption that is successful because of excellent acting and directorial restraint.
© FIPRESCI 2016