Director Eric Atlan
Starring: Diana Rudychenko, Daria Panchenko, Stany Coppet
When a film’s press notes or marketing efforts trumpet it as a “metaphysical thriller,” one knows they’re likely in for a bunch of art-school/Psych 101 posturing (read: horseshit) or something nervy, intellectual and oddly appealing, and director Eric Atlan’s arresting French import ‘Mortem’ is maybe five percent the former but overwhelmingly the latter.
An in-competition title at the 14th annual Dances With Films festival, where it just enjoyed its U.S. premiere, this engaging and strikingly photographed bauble centers on a woman, Jena (Daria Panchenko), who is in an accident and finds herself stuck in a strange motel room, where she becomes locked in a sort of existential game of cat-and-mouse with her soul (Russian-born model Diana Rudychenko). Jena’s one-time and lasting love, Aken (Stany Coppet), also pops up, but for the longest time he is neither able to see Jena’s soul nor help her find passage out of this confinement. As Jena pleads for another chance with Aken, her soul teases her with revelations about his other romantic liaisons, puts a few hot and heavy moves on Jena herself, and eventually dictates to her that her fortune be decided by a deck of cards.
‘Mortem’ is kind of desperately French or European in the best sense of that phrase — unabashedly arty and leaning toward the pretentious (“I came out of you,” says Jena’s soul, “and now I exist!”), additionally characterized by an acting style that toes the line between formalized and high emotion. After a brief period of adjustment, the absolute certitude with the film it is rendered and the technical skill and precision with which it is captured, however, make for an fascinating cinematic experience. Atlan, who has a background as a painter, works as his own cinematographer, and the rich, redone black-and-white CinemaScope frames of ‘Mortem’ give it a sumptuous look that translates in heady, involving fashion into deeper feeling. One literally feels as if they’ve tripped and ended up in an entirely different world, one in which the atmospherics and details (a lingering fog outside the hotel, an empty refrigerator inside) carry both a literal and metaphorical weight.
Thematically, we’re firmly in Ingmar Bergman territory here, as perhaps refracted through the lens of an Eraserhead-era David Lynch. Fear of death is the big subject, but all of the big life questions — as well as chiefly the friction between heart and head, desire and intellect — inform the sense of generalized anxiety that course through the movie. There’s an erotic, sapphic charge to the scenes in which Jena’s soul puts the moves on her, with Jena alternately succumbing to and recoiling from their abortive love-making. If some of its verbal parrying doesn’t quite match this level of response, resulting in a few scenes of re-tilled emotional ground, ‘Mortem’ still locates abundant reservoirs of feeling untapped by many far more narratively forthright pictures. ‘Mortem’ should be getting a theatrical release a bit later in the year, and/or available soon via VOD. In the meantime, for more information, visit www.EricAtlan.org.
Written by: Brent Simon
A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brent Simon is a three-term president of LAFCA, a contributor to Screen International and Magill's Cinema Annual, and film editor of H Magazine. He cannot abide a world without U2 and pizza.