Spiral – Film review

Almost there, but not quite – although rough around the edges, Cecília Feméri’s debut shows off her potential.

Contrary to its association-evoking name, Spiral (Spirál, 2020), the debut feature film of Cecília Feméri, is quite a straightforward downward journey into the intricacies of rural life. Taking place in a Hungarian lakefront house and its picturesque environs, the psychological drama aspires to captivate the audience’s attention by combining themes such as relationship (dis)satisfaction, unexpected changes, and the concept of letting go. In both theory and practice, such main points can build a solid premise; here, however, they only end up adding up to a story of rather unrealized potential.

Bence (Bogdan Dumitrache) is a 30-something man who initially used to dream of becoming a marine biologist. Hard-hit by reality, he started working as a biology teacher in a provincial town and after inheriting his current property, he opted for leaving his job, instead focusing entirely on cultivating fish. Sharing a similarly spiral career devolution, his girlfriend, Janka (Diána Magdolna Kiss), feels unfulfilled not only with her relationship, but also with her life situation in general. Echoing the lack of zest for life of the two protagonists, the fish in the pond slowly start dying off for no apparent reason. An old adage says that time flies imperceptibly; suddenly, though, Janka is gone – this breathes life into the third dimension of the film’s title.

While far from perfect, the character of Bence is, overall speaking, well-developed; nevertheless, the same cannot be claimed about Janka – even though it is evident how she feels about her boyfriend and her life at the moment, she is mainly portrayed by actions without much significance. This may be a deliberately pursued effect, as it could be posited that the film treats its female protagonists, Janka and Nóra (Alexandra Borbély), as entirely observed from Bence’s perspective. The zeal of Dumitrache is commendable – although his Hungarian was initially not on par with the rest of the cast, he worked with a language coach to improve his fluency and delivery of the dialogue. The semiotic usage of nature is omnipresent in the film – the lake is a symbol of life, the changing seasons allude to the alternating periods of joy and sorrow, and the fish schools and their lifespan are associated with the spark of every romantic relationship. Spiral also shows that when all other options are exhausted, letting go is quite far from the worst thing that can happen – it can reinvigorate a person’s life by giving them a new sense of purpose.

The cinematography by György Réder (The King, 2019, dir. David Michôd) predominantly relies on close-up shots. While it makes sense to use those to convey emotions and amplify dramatic moments, it is rather regrettable to see such a powerful tool so overused in the film that it is on the brink of starting to lose its meaning. Furthermore, judging by the way she depicted pallor mortis, the key make-up artist, Barbara Kund, clearly cannot have ever attended an open-casket funeral. The soundtrack, mixed by Gábor Császár, is also nothing to write home about – right before the beginning of the third act, it is somehow deemed adequate to play non-diegetic generic electronic music in the background. Furthermore, the film ends with Miserere mei, Deus, a setting of Psalm 51 by the Italian composer Gregorio Allegri. Those two choices are way off the mark, as they do not seem to be connected to the scenes in question at all. 
Spiral is a work of contrasts – certain aspects of it, such as its semiotics, are meticulously presented, others, such as the music cues, look like frantic eleventh-hour efforts that diminish its merits. Nevertheless, the film is a promising debut which aptly shows that spirals can be easily overcome by making conscious decisions aimed at finding happiness and a sense of purpose.

Mladen Pechevski
Edited by Amber Wilkinson