In an age over-saturated with slick American teen drama series with a supernatural theme – many still characterised by the enduring influence of BUFFY and all of them hoping to be as long running as SUPERNATURAL – HEARTLESS is a distinctively Danish take on the form. Played commendably straight and without the smart-arse, self-aware humour that tends to dominate its U.S. equivalents, it’s an absorbing, if sometimes ponderous, eight-episode serial that has scope for further seasons.
In the early going of episode one, we witness photogenic teen twins Sofie (Julie Zangenberg) and Sebastian (Sebastian Jessen) luring and feeding in an almost vampiric fashion from an unfortunate young man in a nightclub who, as a result of their necessary act, promptly bursts into flames. The siblings have to feed on the life force of other people in order to survive and fatal consequences result if their feeding reaches a certain level. Sebastian, the more sensitive of the duo, wrestles with his own conscience of their activities, and together the twins set out to find out who and what they really are. They revisit the orphanage from which they originally ran away as infants, and discover that their mother attended an ultra-strict, rural boarding school. Joining as second year students, they learn about the dark history of the school itself – with the sadistic modern hierarchy carrying on old traditions of persecution and torture - and its inextricable links to their own bloodline.
Shot in muted tones and colours with the central school permanently enshrouded by mist, HEARTLESS is an atmospheric series built around a premise that inevitably echoes significant earlier American genre works. Sebastian (who tortuously reins in his need to feed wherever possible) gets the come-on from various girls at the school but his perfectly normal lustiness blurs with the unavoidable needs of his monstrous self when aroused, a la CAT PEOPLE. (The notion of a tortured, handsome male lead unable to fulfil romantic relationships due to the threat he poses, is of course, a throwback to BUFFY and ANGEL). The concept of family members with a desperate compulsion to feed on humans and a peculiarly incestuous relationship with each other has echoes of Stephen King’s far sillier SLEEPWALKERS. There are also CARRIE-inspired sub-plots involving the telekinetic powers of key secondary characters.
It could very easily be reincarnated as a generic, slick U.S. series, but the execution here is very Scandinavian. The tone is sombre and understated, with an underlying erotic charge and a real effort to minimise FX and melodrama in favour of a realistic approach to the potentially outlandish material. The backstory, including flashbacks to 17th century witch-hunts linked to the school principal’s three daughters, is effectively integrated into the contemporary narrative, and the performances are strong all round: the two leads are striking. For those that crave such things, there are occasional intrusions of predictably bad CGI fire and some fleeting, gratuitous shower-room nudity, but HEARTLESS has a beguiling style of its own, even when retreading age-old plot threads like the old “Only love can break the curse…” chestnut that we have seen in sundry earlier genre projects.
IN CONVERSATION WITH Eili Harboe
“I would say that hopefully I have progressed and developed as an actress from this project, and as a person”, says actress Eili Harboe, reflecting on her lead role in Joachim Trier’s Norwegian horror, THELMA. Ahead of the theatrical release at the London BFI Film Festival, Harboe spoke with FrightFest about those initial feelings of being overwhelmed, mixed with exciting challenges, and the limitation of character interpretation.
Why acting as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?·
It was actually my mom who tried to figure out what activity I should do after school, because I had tried so many different things, and I hadn't gone through with any. So she suggested acting because I always had a creative mind to make small scenes or sketches with my siblings. I think she saw and appreciated that, and asked me if I wanted to be a part of a small amateur theatre group in my home town of Stavanger, on the north coast of Norway. At that time I was seven and I didn't even know that it existed - I just thought that was something that appeared on stage or on screen, not something you could really do. So I decided to start, and I attended that theatre group from the age of seven until I was sixteen, and then I went to an open casting call for a feature film called THE ORHEIM COMPANY. On the first day on set I realised that if I have the opportunity, this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, and I have pursued that ever since [laughs]. I have also been in school and I have a Bachelors degree in English Literature, and I have just recently started a Bachelors Degree in Art History. So I continue to both study and to do this, but this is the primary, and acting is something you could definitely say I want to pursue moving forward. But just as I am inspired by theatre and film, I am also inspired by literature, music and art when I work on characters or projects.
When you first read the script for THELMA, what was the appeal of both the character and the story?
I was fortunate enough to read the script very early on, and I was immediately drawn to it. The script was beautifully written, very thrilling and I didn't expect anything that happened on the next page. I was just overwhelmed by it and the character of Thelma was very defined. She struck me as both complex and vulnerable, but not a victim of the circumstances.
How does the process of constructing the character work for you? An actress once remarked to me that the key to discovering a character can be the smallest of details, such as the way a character walks or talks?
It always seemed real to me in that there were a lot of challenges both emotionally and physically. I had to do swimming lessons and seizure therapy to portray the type of epileptic seizures that Thelma experiences in the film, which was very exciting. I think that very pragmatic way of dealing with those challenges, especially the physical, was something that helped me to get into character. But actors work very differently and I never use something that I have experienced personally in my life. I use the characters own motivation and her story to be able to portray her, and her emotional state. So a timeline and then her emotional journey, which I have mostly in my head, but I would also write a lot of stuff down, and just see how her story developed and how that effected her.
Joachim has obviously been a director I have admired and I've always wanted to work with him. He has a unique ability to portray layered and complex emotions among human relationships, both with grief and love, which is universal for humans. The supernatural theme and cinematic approach was beautifully captured by cinematographer Jakob Ihre, a mix that just suited the film very nicely. We had a lot of conversation during the auditioning rounds and also pre-production, and throughout the whole shoot about the story and the character, my interpretation of it and Joachim’s ideas. He’s very open to suggestions and I prepare both for the scenes I'm shooting, but also for the scenes before, and even the scenes after, to know where she is coming from in a sense. As an actor you can only prepare so much, and you need to be able not only to perform, which seems to many to be the main thing, but to also listen. You can see onscreen especially, and definitely in theatre as well when an actor is really listening to the other person and their surroundings, or if they are just waiting to perform their next line. So that's something I am constantly working on, and also to be able to prepare yourself, but work impulsively. To be present and working off of the other person on set is very important, and I think it’s just more that Thelma is a very sensitive person. She suppresses a lot of emotions during the film, and coming from a very conservative Christian family has been treated in a way that has effected her, developing this pattern of how she perceives the world, how she handles it, and herself in that.
It will only be my interpretation of her journey, and I don't know if working a specific way would have helped that. I was constantly aware of where she was going or what she was doing in that moment while we were shooting, and that just subconsciously effected my character - how she walked or how she saw the world around her. Unless she has a limp or has been smoking for a long time, it must be that specific, or if the director has a specific opinion. That's not something I've been working on so far, but I would love to have that type of challenge. That would be super cool!
A story of repression, of a woman who is denied her true nature, if we think of a film as being constructed and shaped, then THELMA represents the nature of storytelling. When it plays for an audience, each individual spectator will connect with your character in their own way. In as much as it is a story about liberation, this interaction with the audience could be contextualised as the liberation of the film from its authors. Not so much art mirroring life, THELMA mirrors the creative or life journey of a film?
When writing the script, Joachim and co-screenwriter Eskil Vogt wanted to make some sort of supernatural film, but with a sensitivity, and reading the script they translated that very well into the final product. The feeling I got was brooding, a creeping up on me, but I didn't really know what was unsettling about it until I had read the whole script. The film captures that and they definitely challenged themselves in a visual way, and with the score and the sound design, and watching it for the first time it really struck me. Yeah, you really get drawn into that universe and that portrayal of fate.
The use of the visual image and music is striking, creating an open and conscious awareness of the camera. The emotional feeling it evokes compels us to look closer on the world of the film, and to my mind, one of the beautiful aspects of cinema is when image and sound are conscious?
Yeah, definitely, and for me it is very important that we are all a team making this film. I try to be as conscious of my colleagues as I possibly can, the other actors and especially the makeup and costumist are the ones that work closest with me, other than the cinematographer and director. You should try not to put yourself aside from that, but be present because you are all a team working for the same goal. If you separate yourself from that, which some actors do, and I respect that in some sense that they need to get into their own zone, but I feel like you are working on two different projects in a way. Even though you have the same script, you are not really understanding one another. Even light can be crucial, and if you're aware of that and you are present, and you try to be empathetic towards the people who do everything they can to make the film in which you are one of the characters. So I respect the film and I consider myself a film worker, not an actress. I would say that hopefully I have progressed and developed as an actress from this project, and as a person.
THELMA was released in UK theatres on Friday 3 November courtesy of Thunderbird Releasing, and screens across the UK until early December. For further screening information visit: http://www.thunderbirdreleasing.com/thelma/