QUICK SNAP: LIVE FROM TALLINN
An absurdist retelling of Cassandra’s myth for the 21st century, Until the Branches Bend is a highly-intelligent debut feature from Canadian writer-director Sophie Jarvis, whose minimalist and intimate aesthetics give way to an ambitious critique of contemporary life under capitalism. The plot follows Robin, a young woman exquisitely played by Grace Glowicki, who attempts to warn a community of fruit growers that a disaster is about to occur if they do not act quickly.
Robin works at a cannery for a fruit growing company in British Columbia, rural Canada. On a day of summer, she spots a wormhole in a peach, which, when opened, lets out an odd-looking, slightly intimidating beetle. Robin then follows all the right measures: she locks up the bug in a jar, immediately informs her supervisor, Dennis, who in turn calls the big company boss, Gerry. When Gerry refuses to admit that the appearance of this particular bug may have colossal consequences for, not just the company, but for the entire community, Robin’s supervisor asks her to keep quiet and never discuss the incident again. Unconvinced and slightly bewildered, Robin takes a quick snapshot of the bug in order to lead her own investigation on the subject.
A nonchalant Cassandra, she is far from an aspiring Che Guevara in possession of a particular revolutionary plan – no, as she says, she simply wants to know what type of bug she discovered. But when her investigations lead to a series of events that culminate in the shutting down of the fruit plantation, her actions are interpreted by the others either as selfish sabotage, or as a heroic middle-finger to the bosses. She faces the sheer incompetence of all institutions she deals with, from the ridiculous, golf-playing company bosses, to the state-funded pest management officers, who are not capable of sourcing the root of the bug problem, even after closing down the plantation and effectively shattering the local economy. Seeing that Robin refuses to let go, the viewer starts questioning whether the incident was really all that important, or whether Robin is not suffering from a sort of mental breakdown, potentially related to an abortion she is planning to have.
Roaming about through life without much will nor desire, Robin seems to have lost all faith in herself. She constantly crushes her younger sister’s hopes and dreams, for instance, when she shuts her down while she excitedly tells her about her new philosopher/photographer boyfriend. Quirky but melancholic and passionless, she holds onto this new thrust of energy glowing inside of her, detonated in large part by the strange landing of the beetle into her empty hands.
Multiple questions arise while following Robin’s quest for answers. Is the community of fruit growers a stand-in for human society as a whole, unwilling to face the threat of climate change? If so, then the film subtly hints at the difficulties of actually tackling such colossal problems, when economies are entirely reliant on specific types of trade and labour, when farmers and workers are unable to afford the shutting down of certain kinds of industries due to the absence of any solid infrastructure that would prevent them from sinking into misery. The discovery of potential danger is always a frightening moment, for denial can strike like a swift and persuasive poison. It is tempting to ignore the symptom of impending doom, but what about the inescapable future feelings of guilt? Will we be willing to look at ourselves in the mirror, when blue skies become dark with the coming of the plague? Whether it is the profit motive that lulls the hearts of company-men, or whether workers bow down to silence, redoubling prayers for God to turn the tides of fate, at the end of the day, all players are in the full knowledge of what kind of danger lies lurking at bay, amassing strength by the hour. Denial is a hopeful suicide that leads to a dead end: the return of the repressed, in a form much more terrifying than the first blossoms of its symptoms.
To conclude, I have never seen a film quite like this one, and was consistently under the spell of its quirky and unique charms. Slightly surreal at times, while skilfully intimate, the whole aesthetic regime gives off the quality of being homegrown, a film nurtured by a small crew, with local performers, making what feels at times like a documentary. The film mingles an entirely bizarre selection of elements: it is shot on 16mm with the colour palette and the frivolous naturalism of a Rohmer movie, it features a Meredith Monk-inspired minimalist soundtrack, its plot focuses on a beetle emerging out of a peach, but its designs are highly ambitious, pointing at an entire race of human beings unable to change their ways in order to circumvent the death of all things – including the peach and the maligned bug within it.
Until Branches Bend has just premiered at the First Feature Competition of the 26th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.