The Limits of Control

in 25th Stockholm International Film Festival

by Glenn Dunks

“This is very embarrassing”, says Adam Driver’s Jude to Alba Rohrwacher’s Mina in a confined toilet cubicle of a Chinese restaurant in the opening scene of Saverio Costanzo’s Hungry Hearts. It’s a sequence that sits at odds with the rest of the film and one that initially had me worried about the rest of the film. It’s, shall we say, pungent use of toilet humour initially coming off as an unpleasant palate setter. In retrospect, the scene is rather ingenious in the way it completely offsets the audience’s expectations. Knowing zero about the film going in as I did, and ten minutes in there is no possible way to know where it will end up, which only seeks to heighten the horrors when they eventually come flooding into the narrative after a speaker-busting use of Irena Cara’s “Flashdance… What a Feeling” and shotgun wedding filled with gaiety and love.

Mina and Jude are expecting a child and so she puts her career on hold and the two move in to her glorious top-floor apartment near 72nd Street in Manhattan. She visits a clairvoyant of sorts and collapses on a rooftop at a friend’s art exhibit. She underweight and so too is the child when he is eventually born. Mina’s concern over radiation and air pollution mean she and the baby never leave the confines of their apartment except to tend to the makeshift greenhouse that they have erected on the roof and cell-phones must be left at the bottom of the creaking staircase. Jude’s initial discomfort becomes terrified panic and it becomes clear that Mina’s paranoia is effectively killing their child. He begins taking the child out for walks, entering a church just to feed him ham and other meats in order to make him grow, but when Mina’s delusions become too much, the extreme nature of their situation becomes too much to bear.

The film’s blend of infant and body horror recalls both Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and the works of Canadian flesh expert David Cronenberg. Costanzo expertly films the deterioration of Mina in a way that is all to conceivable in the real world. The use of so-called fish-eye lenses by cinematographer Fabio Cianchetti highlighting Rohrwacher’s long, lithe limbs and contorting them into alien visions of wasting horror. His use of 16mm film further maximizing the film’s evocation of overcast 1970s paranoia thrillers that juxtaposes superbly with the beautiful golden images of Coney Island that feature prominently in the third act. It allows the film one of the most unique and not to mention unsettling purely visual oriented looks of the cinematic year so far. It’s vision of terror so gloriously out of sync with the glossy digital look favoured by low-budget genre filmmakers and even David Cronenberg himself.

The idea of control, or lack thereof, permeates heavily throughout Hungry Hearts. Both Mina and Jude are waging a war of sorts over control: she is fighting desperately to keep it amidst a world she believes is spinning irreversibly into a chasm of disease both natural and technological, while he fights to control for the safety and well-being of his son. This struggle is shown through tension-stroking sequences that examine each parent’s unwavering devotion however 180-degrees apart they are. Roberta Maxwell as Jude’s mother becomes an integral part of this machine in the third act, with her intrusion seen by Mina as, yet again, something she must attempt to control lest her child be exposed to whatever it is she fears.

I had such a strong, visceral reaction to this movie. It took ahold of my mind in such a way that I found myself constantly thinking about it long after the screening. I couldn’t get its images out of my head, its twisted tale of unconventional horror making me feel uncomfortable long after the credits had rolled. Director Constanzo’s vision is so clear and precise and like the best genre fare of the last few years is attempting something different and unique. Despite reveling in the technique of decades past, it is a very modern film. A film that speaks to the very modern horrors facing the world today, but does so in a manner that will leave audiences with plenty of questions and discussion. Was Mina entirely wrong from trying to protect her child the way that she did? Was Jude right for intervening the way he did? It’s all a part of the film’s glorious world where nothing is as it seems and the moral and ethical grey zone comes evermore uncomfortably to the surface.

Glenn Dunks