Les Gouffres

Three films in the lineup of Locarno’s main competition tell the stories of unlikely friendships. Starlet follows a seemingly aimless young woman who starts to interact with a crotchety old woman. In Museum Hours two middle-age people, an Austrian museum employee and a Canadian woman visiting a comatose relative, become friends as they spend time together exploring Vienna. The German film Der Glanz des Tages (The Shine of the Day) tells the story of two people who should know each other well, an uncle and a cousin, but some unknown past event has alienated the uncle form the rest of the family. These films all stress the importance and beauty of connecting with other people and allowing yourself to be open, curious and non-judgmental.

And yet a warped mirror image of this theme has also developed in the festival, examining just how dark and scary connecting with other people can be. One of the first films I saw at the festival was Bradley Rust Grey’s film Jack and Diane, which I wrote about in the first Locarno report. The sudden love that blossoms between Juno Temple’s Diane and Riley Keough’s Jack leaves both girls so uncertain about their lives that at points the characters transform into grotesque monsters This theme of love and connection as something scary and monstrous struck me while watching the film and interestingly it has echoed again and again in the festival.

In the confounding but entertaining French film Les Gouffres (The Sinkholes) the central couple is genuinely in love, although that love has clearly become either comfortable or complacent depending on how you look at it. An actress played by Nathalie Boutefeu goes with her geologist husband (Mathieu Amalric) to a South American expedition in order to examine five gigantic sinkholes which have appeared from nowhere. As he goes off to explore these mysterious caverns, in an area dealing with unexplainable quakes, she waits in a secluded country hotel. She fails to hear from her husband and becomes increasingly certain that some horrible has happened. The film deals incredibly well with that feeling of fear, that longing to get verification that the one you love is safe and sound, with director Antoine Barraud expertly handling Boutefeu's mounting terror. It’s therefore surprising that the film suddenly takes a turn into actual horror, with the discovery of a tunnel in the hotel leading into the sinkholes. While it is true that the film had already positioned itself as somewhat supernatural, its turn from grounded psychological horror to something more literally horrific feels odd and out of synch with the rest of the movie. It does manage to present an ending which raises a question central to all relationships: How well do I actually know this person?

Berberian Sound Studio

The Italian film Padroni di casa (The Landlords), from director Edoardo Gabbriellini, takes a less overtly horrific look at the same theme. It starts out as a funny drama about two brothers working as contractors at the home of an aging pop star, who’s about to come out of retirement. As incranted by Gianni Morandi, he comes off as charming, albeit in an utterly artificial and fabricated way. Morandi is himself an aging pop star, and the film exploits his lived-in charm, a product of being famous for decades, for devastating effect. Underneath the surface of the generally quite funny first half is a quiet sense of dread. The true catalyst for the violence that breaks out in the film is a terrifying scene where you realize how the far ambivalence and resentment towards a romantic partner can go. Padroni di casa is about a lot of things, but its most resonant moments are connected deeply to the poisoning effect lack of communication can have, not only on a single relationship but on an entire town.

In Berberian Sound Studio Toby Jones plays Gilderoy, a mild mannered sound engineer. Unlike the instances above, where the horror rises from human relationships, Berberian is all about isolation and its protgonists' inability to connect with others. Brought to Italy to work on a sleazy giallo thriller, Gilderoy is the opposite of everyone around him. Not only is he inexpressive and closed off; he can’t even speak the same language. But as his need to connect becomes greater the sense of horror starts to creep in. At one point the film even breaks down, revealing both the fragility of the analogue media director Peter Strickland photographs in a fetishistic way, and the psyche of someone unable to communicate at all. Berberian Sound Studio takes the form of a horror film, without ever offering any overt horror scenes. What we get are shots of dark and menacing corridors, overlaid with the grisly sound effects from the film-within-the-film. It’s a quietly creepy story about the importance of communication and the frightening consequences of disconnection.

La fille de nulle part

Lastly there’s Le fille de nulle part (The Girl from Nowhere). Director Jean-Claude Brisseau also stars in the film as Michel, a widowed math teacher. Hearing a sound from the hallway outside his apartment, he discovers a beautiful young woman being beaten by a man who quickly runs away. He brings her into the apartment and starts to take care of her. She’s an orphan who’s been living on the streets for the past few years, but coincidentally she’s also able to offer piercing insights into the academic paper the teacher is working on. They start to collaborate on the work and the widower starts to suspect that the young woman might be the reincarnation of his late wife. At this point strange noises start to come from the apartment and hooded, knife-wielding women seemingly attack Michel. The set-up of the film feels forced and improbable, not to mention the downright creepy element of a director casting himself as an old man falling in love with a beautiful young woman. It doesn’t help that the film is clumsily edited and simply simply looks ugly, filmed with cheap digital video. But the horror scenes work surprisingly well. The idea that the dead wife would start haunting her husband as he starts to fall for another woman is an interesting one, and could be made into both an effective and thoughtful horror film. But in the case of Le fille de nulle part the idea is stuck in a poorly made and meandering film.

These four movies are of course just a small sampling of the festival. But nevertheless it’s odd to see them all tackle this same theme in different ways. Why is it that these filmmakers have all chosen to show the darkness inherent in relationships and the importance of communication? We live in an era of both increased visibility and increased anonymity. You can theoretically connect to almost anyone online. But online communication offers the chance to live a completely anonymous life, stripping away any actual human interaction. Perhaps the filmmakers are dealing with the unsettling implications of a world where we’re too terrified to actually interact face to face. It’s an important question to ponder, especially when sitting by yourself in a darkened theatre, not saying a word.

Ari Gunnar Thorsteinsson lives in Stockholm, Sweden and is a co-host of the Movie Homework Podcast, which can be found on moviehomework.com and in iTunes.

More dispatches from the Critics Academy participants will be published on FilmLinc.com through the end of the Locarno Film Festival on August 11. Keep watching for their bylines in the coming days!