QUICK SNAP: LIVE FROM TALLINN
While Storm is certainly an impressive debut feature, it is proof that cinema needs more than a functional narrative in order to create an impact. A film that purports to speak but has nothing to say, it moves in a form deeply reluctant to convey its narrative through either genre or realist conventions, resulting in an insipid combination of the two.
All elements are, as said above, functional. In this sense, Erika Calmeyer proves herself to be a filmmaker with an ability to effectively put a film together. Indeed, there are no awkward technical errors or clumsy imperfections, in fact, the film feels so utterly clinical in its professionalism that it may end up repressing the sparks of creativity which sometimes animate otherwise slightly more amateur debut features. The performances are strong all around, Ane Dahl Torp convincingly portrays a mother faced with a very difficult psychological situation: it appears that her eldest daughter, Storm, is responsible for the death of her younger brother, Ulrik, whom she pushed into a river causing him to drown. The story follows the aftermath of the accident, where the mother, Elin, has to navigate a landscape of deep, soul-destroying trauma, while simultaneously playing all her cards right in order to spare her second child of life-long psychological wounds. The pressure is high, for the minds of children are extremely vulnerable, and the future of her daughter’s wellbeing is in her hands. While at first she blatantly denies that the child could ever be responsible for the death of Ulrik, she slowly starts giving in to the idea when evidence pointing at the inescapable starts emerging.
The film maintains an uneasy relationship with its sense of style. It borders the conventions of genres like psychological thriller and even horror, while attempting, at the same time, to offer a detailed and painstainkingly ‘real’ representation of loss, denial, and the processes that take place after a troubling occurrence such as this one. This back-and-forth between pyschological realism and timid genre expressionism is precisely the start of the film’s shortcomings, for its inability to choose between formalism and realism turns something that could have superbly bent towards one direction or the other, into the diluted mixture of both.
This unstable relationship with style comes forward, for instance, at the hour of building the daughter’s character. She is portrayed as an angry and violent child, deeply traumatised by the premature death of her father. Flirting with horror, Calmeyer gives her an aura vaguely reminiscent of Regan from The Exorcist (1973). However, I will suggest that Storm would have been a much stronger character had she not had an almost-natural inclination for violence, no doubt caused by the hardships of trauma. If, let’s say, Storm had been a perfectly calm and loving child in a family with no history of grief, with perhaps even the presence of a father figure, then, the death of the brother, by her own hands, would have been a much darker and striking accident, for kids sometimes fleetingly use violence but without much sense or understanding of what they are doing. She may have not known that the brother would die, and immediately would have jumped into the river to try and save him, rather than quietly observing his slow death like a psychopath from the top of a heap of rocks. If her outburst of violence had been a unique event with deathly results, it would have rung uncannily close to any viewer, for a potentially universal event is much more terrifying than the outcomes of a specific situation. On the other hand, if Storm had been a true psychopath, or an evil child, a different story could have emerged, with equally interesting results.
To offer contrast, previous films come to my mind which offered similar narratives of parents facing the loss of a child – Three Colours: Blue (1993), an arthouse classic remembered precisely for Kieslowski’s full embrace of exuberant formalism in the service of character depth; Don’t Look Now (1973), Nicolas Roeg’s horror cult favourite which presented a highly innovative use of editing (and costume design) in a scene noticeably similar to Storm‘s initial sequence.
While some may say such forrays into genre and arthouse aesthetics are not reflective of real life, it is in my view that the role of the aesthetic is not to reflect but to bring out something more than, simply, the ‘real’. For what many will consider to be ‘real life’, is only a surrogate for events that merely have higher chances of occurring, and that pass themselves off for what is ‘normal’. Anything falling outside of the parameters of statistics, or generally accepted behaviour falls into the category of the unreal, and by extension of form and genre. But what if cinema represented the repressed life of ‘normality’, feelings of yearning, fantasies of love and violence we all share, the emergence of nightmares? What is genre and formalism if not spillage from daily life, suppressed elements that surround, while still enflaming, the common existence of people?
To conclude, Storm‘s undecisive form is guilty of strengthening processes of reification whereby the aesthetic presents itself as nature only to reify, to turn the ideal, or the fake, into an illusion of the concrete world while ultimately fooling the beholder. By the end, the film does not resolve many of its central questions. It is not that the choice is to remain ambiguous and open-ended, for the film gives off all the signs of being fully in control of itself, satisfied with the way that it ties its own loose ends. One would love to see Erika Calmeyer letting go of that measured rationality with which she imbues her first feature. She has successfully created a perfectly professional film, slick and well-produced, but which sadly becomes nothing more than the sum of its parts.
Storm has just premiered at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival. It is part of the First Feature Competition.