French philosopher Henri Bergson coined the concept of élan vital more than a century ago. It denotes the vital force or impulse for life that he had observed in every single living creature, from amoebae to human beings. This force is relatively weak in plants because they have a very limited consciousness of the environment around them. It gradually grows, always linked to the evolution chain. The Survivalist will inject audiences with a high dose of élan vital, perhaps giving their life a new impetus. It will also make them jump from their seats.
The unnamed lead character (played by Martin McCann, from Clash of Titans, Louis Leterrier, 2010), struggles for his existence on a makeshift farm. The man lives in isolation and closely guards his crops, fearing marauding gangs. The identity of his enemies are never revealed, nor the reasons behind his segregation. His lifestyle seems precarious yet strangely healthy.
Kathryn (Olwen Fouere, from This Must Be the Place, Paolo Sorrentino, 2011) and her daughter Milja (Mia Goth, Nymphomaniac Volume II, Lars von Trier, 2013) wander into his life looking for food and shelter. The two women quickly shake the foundations and challenge the conventions of the hermit (he is presumably the survivalist in the film title), as suspicion and mystery unravel.
Essentially, The Survivalist is the story of an unusual caveman. According to the book ‘Matriarchal Prehistory: Our Glorious Past and Our Hope for the Future’, by Fer-Gonzalez-Blanco, men who dwelled in caves strongly believed women were goddesses, largely because they could not explain the relation between menstruation and birth. The character in the film seems to take women’s power for granted and, as a consequence, he will suffer from it.
The Survivalist is set in an unspecified time-period. The plot is mostly reliant on emotions instead of convoluted dialogue and special effects. There is intensive focus on body language and facial expressions, and the film is entirely devoid in the first 16 minutes. It feels like a return to the essence of cinema (moving images).
The possibility that external and ominous forces could disrupt the routine that the three characters invented for themselves is a predicament every civilisation fears. Men can’t be that happy forever, and something eventually will break the balance. This is precisely what happens when the Survivalist opens the door of his shelter to two women. His attempts to defend himself will prove he is the weaker sex.
Such a complex film mandates superb performances, which are supported by a convincing neo-Primitivist backdrop. The three actors gradually allow the narrow existence of the characters to blossom, unaffected by resources such as voiceover, flashbacks and other cinematic devices. Stephen Fingleton allows them vomit and to ejaculate life raw.
There are no morals in the world inhabited by these three characters. Maybe this is why it is easy for audiences to connect with the characters. They are reminded that everyone is born without morals.
Damien Elliott’s photography imprints a light that breaks through the woods in search of air and sky. All the images in the film – muscles, nature – seem to long for freedom. The cinematography is cleverly synchronised with the mood of the film, which veers from confinement to explosion.
This is Fingleton’s first feature film, and it’s worth keeping an eye on his upcoming projects. A second feature may establish him as a new voice in British cinema – both cinematographer and director stem from Northern Ireland. The Survivalist is out in the UK on Friday, February 12th.