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What Remains

Stellan Skarsgard and Andrea Riseborough star in psychological crime drama about serial killer in a Scandinavian psychiatric hospital - from the Locarno Film Festival


As an artist engaged with aesthetics, perception and the relationship between truth and fiction, Ran Huang’s work revels in the superficial, using the medium of film to present stylised images that question our ideas of representation. It might seem incongruous with the Chinese creative’s ethos, then, to take on What Remains, a relatively conventional true-crime thriller in the Scandi-noir tradition, as his first feature-length project. Yet the hallmarks of Huang’s work are evident throughout this compelling tale of falsehood and self-deception, a Chinese-Finnish-British co-production starring Andrea Riseborough opposite Gustaf and Stellan Skarsgård.

“It’s about arriving at the truth”, declares therapist Anna (Riseborough) early in the film, a devilishly ironic line for a work so uncomfortable with absolutes. Loosely based on the true story of Thomas Quick, aka Sture Bergwall, What Remains is primarily composed of the conversations between Anna and Mads (Gustaf Skarsgård), a convicted child abuser who, on the eve of his release from a psychiatric hospital, changes his identity and confesses to the first of several murders. Enter police officer Soren (Stellan Skarsgård), who forms the third part of an interdependent triangle, each character trying to find a concealed truth: Mads hopes to understand his past, Anna seeks validation of her psychoanalytic theories, while Soren sees both as his key to solving a number of cold cases.

Dubious motives clash with the unreliability of memory as Huang rejects crime thriller clichés in favour of a more pensive approach. His film is slow and full of painful silences. Long, drawn out scenes depict Anna’s struggle to extract the truth from Mads, she and Soren nudging him here, leading him there, as their patience wears thin and frustrations bubble to the surface. It’s not only the Swedish climate that makes the film look and feel as cold as it does; a clinical colour palette of whites and blues and the overwhelming silence of the film – dialogue is rarely punctuated by non-diegetic sound – create not only a sense of isolation, but a subtle charade of detached objectivity. As the plot develops and the details of Mads’ confessions come into question, the neutral stillness of Huang’s camera appears equally deceptive.

Such a slow burner of a film requires understated performances, and Huang gets exactly these from Riseborough and Skarsgård Jr. The To Leslie (Michael Morris, 2022)star portrays Anna with generous empathy, while Skarsgård carves out both a monster and a victim in his Mads. In an unlikely turn of events, it’s his father, the most accomplished of the film’s main cast, who fails to impress. With little to work with as the typically dishevelled Scandi-noir detective, his performance is tinged with a slight sense of boredom, a far cry from his best work under Lars von Trier.

Unfortunately, as the film enters its final act, it’s difficult not to sympathise with the Swedish film icon, who finds himself in a movie with little in the way of a climax. A few sub-plots are touched upon – Anna’s ailing mother and attempts to conceive, Soren’s battle to see his own child – presumably to remind us of these characters’ humanity, but they feel superfluous in an already slow-paced film that lasts over two hours. By the time What Remains reaches its bathetic conclusion, we’re led to wonder what we trudged through all that grimness for.

The film’s title lends itself to multiple interpretations, but perhaps the most pertinent is that which relates to Huang’s approach to genre. What remains when you strip the crime thriller of all its scandal and sensationalism, when you lower the tempo and the volume so much that its most critical moments almost pass the viewer by? While it struggles to justify its lengthy runtime and doesn’t always know what to do with its characters, What Remains is undoubtedly a daring and assured mood piece, the likes of which we rarely see.

What Remains just showed in the Fuori Concorso section of the 76th Locarno Film Festival.

By Louis Roberts - 08-08-2023

Louis is a freelance writer and digital communications professional based in Liverpool. His love affair with independent film began at Manchester’s dearly departed Cornerhouse in the early 2010s, an...

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