QUICK SNAP: LIVE FROM TALLINN
Filled with elliptical storytelling, minimal dialogue and a strange, unsettling tone, Model Olimpia is a low-key German horror film filtered through an arthouse style. Presenting a mother-and-son relationship quite unlike any other, it announces Frédéric Hambalek as a director to watch.
Made for almost no-budget, the film only consists of a handful of players. At its centre is a young man (Alban Mondschein), a quiet and strange boy. He performs rituals at the behest of his mother (Anna Steffens) such as looking at pictures of strangers and imagining their secret lives, as well as masturbating to the audio of cringe-y erotic novels. It appears that she has created her own therapy technique, one that will go to dark places in order to “fix” her son.
What is the mother trying to achieve? Is she actually trying to help her son, or is she the reason he is so strange in the first place? This tension is brought to the test by the arrival of a new neighbour (Mathilde Bundschuh), a kind, well-adjusted student who offers the young man the chance for a more normal life.
Or does she? It’s hard to tell considering the weirdness of all the players. Characters move and act slowly, drained of any true emotion. There’s influences from Yorgos Lanthimos here, especially Dogtooth, with its hermetically sealed world of internal rules and symbols that keeps the viewer second guessing throughout. There’s also elements of Berliner Schule directors such as Christian Petzold and Angela Schanelec. Like these abrasive directors, the film moves at strange angles, forcing the viewer to constantly play catch-up.
The connective narrative tissue between scenes is almost completely omitted: showing us only the jagged parts instead of the whole. We are often dropped into the midst of scenes, giving the film a feeling of unpredictability. The camerawork is extremely precise, making use of unconventional, mostly static frames to create a controlled and unnerving atmosphere. The tone is so controlled that when there is a marked break with the films carefully created style, you stand up and notice, providing a masterclass in making and then disrupting a certain type of style.
In different hands the film may come across as overly crass or even misogynistic, but Model Olimpia is so matter-of-fact in its presentation it can be interpreted in multiple ways. This is stressed by the lack of a score, which provides the audience little guidance of how to feel. In fact, the most unsettling thing is not knowing what to feel rather than simply having a strong reaction one way or another.
There will probably be mixed reactions to this film. It’s likely to put a lot of viewers off. But for those who want to stick with it, there are plenty of rewards to be found in its intriguing approach. Some may find it bitterly comic; while others will be utterly horrified. To work on both levels on such a small budget is a fascinating achievement.
Model Olimpia plays as part of the First Feature competition at Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, running from 13th to 29th November.