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.
DVD REVIEW – RAW *****
Directed by Julia Ducournau. Starring Ella Rumpf, Garance Marillier, Rabah Nait Oufella, Laurent Lucas, Joana Preiss, Bouli Lanners. France 2016 99 mins Certificate: 18
Released on DVD by Universal Pictures on August 14th 2017
A bold and riveting feature debut for writer-director Julia Ducournau, this showcases an outstanding performance from Garance Marillier in the lead role. She’s a skinny vegetarian teen from a loving veggie family who has retained her virginity to the point where she still wears unicorn T-shirts. The first time we see her is in a moment of repulsion, offering a hint at what is to come: she spits out an errant meatball in her mashed potato at a café.
Subsequently, we follow her induction into veterinary college, the same establishment attended by her more confident and liberated older sister (Ella Rumpf). Discussions about bestiality and animal rights alternate with her physical experience of rush week, where the elaborate, sometimes SALO-inspired initiation rituals include eating raw rabbit kidneys. The morning after the latter, Marillier wakes up in an itching frenzy due to red, blistery patches all over her body and a sense of nausea. This seems to awaken an escalating appetite for meat – starting with raw chicken – that turns out to follow a prominent family tradition.
On the surface an authentic Cronenbergian disease movie, this film’s revisionist take on a familiar genre “monster” / taboo also has obvious echoes of past, teen-centered films such as GINGER SNAPS and Romero’s MARTIN, with a similar commitment to realism and coming-of-age metaphors. Ducournau employs the contentious subject matter to tackle themes of sexual awakening, the pressure of conformity, the modern fixation on body image and animal rights : we witness the irony of a pet dog euthanised with the ironically used reasoning “An animal that has tasted human flesh isn’t safe…” The movie’s lineage also stretches to vintage British exploitation: as in Pete Walker’s wonderfully cynical FRIGHTMARE, cannibalism runs in the family.
This is no pretentious, po-faced arthouse horror, however. RAW offers a poignant, humane character study while unveiling a rich streak of gallows humour. “Two fingers will make it come up faster” advises a cheery student in the toilet after hearing what she mistakes for bulimic activity. “You taste like curry” is an entirely human response to the notion of eating a fellow human’s flesh. One extended set piece showcasing the heroine’s first experience of eating human meat veers superbly between extreme discomfort and black humour. Ducournau holds longer than is comfortable for us on the scene’s physical details: close-up pubic hair waxing, a domestic pet sniffing Marillier’s crotch, Marillier chewing her sister’s severed finger to the bone.
The film’s tonal shifts throughout – oscillating between disturbing depictions of feeding and of injury via melancholia and absurdity – are seamlessly integrated into the emotional core. Marillier’s physical and mental transformation is conveyed via a thoroughly absorbing and credible central performance, the actress joining the ranks of the horror genre’s other sympathetic, “monstrous” teenage misfits from the modern period.
Crucially, Ducournau avoids obvious shock effects and bodycount-based drama, heightening the impact of a climactic gruesome reveal following an off-camera killing. ensures that when She also never over-indulges in stylistic tics, selectively deploying bold techniques – notably an extended take capturing Marillier’s alienation at a bustling party. Accompanied throughout by a distinctive electronic score by Ben Wheatley’s regular composer Jim Williams, this beguiling feature surprises further by bowing out on a wonderfully low-key, poignant note at the family breakfast table.