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 - NICOLAS PESCE ON THE EYES OF MY MOTHER
Nicolas Pesce’s directorial feature debut THE EYES OF MY MOTHER is a visually striking film. The monochrome shades mirror the dark story of its young character, Francisca, a woman traumatised by the violent murder of her mother. Of its visual style Pesce observes: “In the same way that a painter uses the brush stroke to give a different impression, as a filmmaker I have a particular visually strong style to give a different impression.” Yet it is not only the monochrome image upon which this pursuit of a different impression is perched. Rather the long takes and slow pace create an alienation with the impatience of modern cinema that fights to retain the audience’s attention.
In conversation with FrightFest, Pesce discussed his pursuit to cultivate a reality with his own spin on our expectations and creating a space in film for the audience to answer questions. He also reflected on the camera as a character, film as a voyeuristic art form and a desire to move away from the philosophical subject matter of his feature debut.
Why a career in filmmaking? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
I was raised in the theatre where my dad did the costumes for Broadway shows, and when I was younger I was an actor. I always loved the idea of being able to depict reality differently from what it is, and I think that we all have such a unique vision of the world and of people. What's so fascinating to me about film over something like theatre or just writing is that film is this beautiful collaboration of writing, acting, music and photography - it's all these art forms in one. You don't have to pick, but you get to play with them all. It's about cultivating this reality that is different to the world we live in and I'm not a filmmaker that's particularly interested in making things that are very naturalistic. This definitely doesn't go for everyone, but I can go around the world and see what real life looks like. As a filmmaker it is my obligation to not do what the world looks like, but put my own little spin on it to make you feel differently about those things you already have an expectation of.
Filmmakers have told me that editing is the best training ground for a director, but I am intrigued as to how writing, directing and editing inform one another. How will the experience of writing, directing and editing EYES OF MY MOTHER impact your approach to future films?
If anything the editing taught me the most about everything, from sitting there wishing I had gotten more shots to seeing how the story works. I always knew I wanted to be risky by not giving you a lot, and in the editing I realised that you don't have to because the audience will fill in the gaps. Also to be comfortable with not having to explain everything, knowing that the actual filmmaking will do a lot of the storytelling work for you.
An example would be the unseen murder, a cut from before to after that doesn't interrupt the flow.
And the beauty of it is that an audience member is going to ask themselves a question and try to answer it. Part of the speed and tone of the movie was giving the audience places to answer for themselves. So you are sitting there watching something, but maybe you zone out for a second thinking about it, and then all of a sudden we are somewhere else. By letting the audience do the work, whether it's the dramatic work or the scares, it will be more relatable to them if they are the ones answering the questions.
I recall reading a comment by Ridley Scott about the need to avoid stylistic shots that may make the audience aware of the camera and pull them out of the experience. While this is not a concern you would share, if you are not seeking to create this illusion, does it cultivate a more refined dialogue between you and your audience?
I don't necessarily buy that you don't want people to know they're watching a movie because you are sitting in a theatre with hundreds of other people. So you are under no illusion that you are watching a movie. As I said before, I'm not trying to trick people into thinking that this is naturalism, this is what life looks like, in the same way that Picasso wasn't try to make it look like a real face. In the same way that a painter uses the brush stroke to give a different impression, as a filmmaker I have a particular visually strong style to give a different impression. You don't say: “Oh, Monet’s paintings look out of focus.” It's about how he moved his brush and for me the camera is another actor in the scene, and at no point are you sitting there and thinking this is a documentary. I'm not arbitrarily moving the camera and if it moves it should be saying something. So as long as the camera work is telling as much of the story as it should be because that's why we make movies. I'm not a photographer because I want to move the camera. I would be a still photographer if I didn't.
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon told me: “The medium and the mystery of the process is that I could wake up one day and not know where to put the camera. Not that I know where to put the camera now, but you walk in with a certain sense.” How far is filmmaking an instinctive process for you?
Well I'm a meticulous planner so before we filmed EYES, I shot every shot of the movie with a still camera and stand-ins. I cut the movie with stills, music and dialogue to make sure it would work. I'm too anxious a person to show up on the day and to not know the answer. I learned from my producers that it's about planning everything meticulously because the nature of film is that you can't plan for everything, and the fewer curve balls you have on the day the better. It's about knowing as much as you possibly can beforehand, so that on the day any exploration is a revelation, as opposed to fixing something.
Preparation of course could be seen to stifle instinct, but I recall Mali Harries saying: “I was taught to learn your lines and then forget them – to see what comes out.”
Totally, and then you can be more free with it.
Returning to your point about giving the audience places in the film to think for themselves, horror is a genre known for its voyeuristic tendencies. What are your thoughts on its place within cinema and how your approach towards the audience connects to your own voyeuristic camera?
I'm very much a student of Hitchcock, De Palma and Polanski, and like I said, I think the camera is another actor in the scene and the person playing that role is the audience. Film is voyeuristic in its form, in that you have someone doing something private and forty people are hidden behind the lens. And the actual experience of making a movie feels voyeuristic. What's interesting about horror is as close to naturalism as I get, it is putting the audience in a situation where they feel like they are watching something they shouldn't be seeing, like they are present for a crime. For the most part I don't want you inside Francisca's head, particularly in those violent moments. I want you in her head when she's sad about her mom. When she's doing something violent I want you to experience what it would feel like if you just turned and looked out the window: Oh my God, someone's doing something out there. We understand that experience of violence more than if we are with the person because most people do not want to be the violent person. So putting yourself in their head is disconcerting in an evasive way, rather than being more subtle and quiet about it. Again it is raising a question rather than giving you the answer.
The response to Francisca is one that lacks condemnation for her cruel and murderous actions in spite of feeling for her victims, which simultaneously provokes conflicting emotional responses.
I always said that I wanted you to feel: I just want to hug this girl, but if I do she'll probably stab me. In real life with actual killers it is more complex than just being around a person that is evil and creepy, and that you feel weird about. Most of the time when these people are caught after years of killing, their neighbours all say: “Wow, I never knew the guy was like that.” So it was important to make the appropriate complexities of a character like this that you would sympathise with. But when she did those things we would not want her to do, then it’s not: I hate her now, it's: I wish you hadn't done that…You don't have to do this. In these violent moments it’s feeling bad for her rather than condemning her.
Speaking with Carol Morley for·THE FALLING she explained: “You take it 90% of the way, and it is the audience that finishes it. So the audience by bringing themselves: their experiences, opinions and everything else to a film is what completes it.” And if the audience are the ones that complete it, does it follow that there is a transfer in ownership?
From the moment we premiered it and I saw it with an audience, it was no longer just my film. The audience bring a lot more to it than I even necessarily intended, and there's a beautiful give or take once the movie exists. As filmmakers we all talk about what we were trying to do, but then the audience takes it their own way and it doesn't matter what I was trying to do. Whatever the audience gets out of it becomes the identity of the movie because quite frankly, more people are going to hear what other people think than what I have to say about the movie. So the reactions are what the movie becomes.
Filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process?
I am definitely ready to not do such dark films - this will probably be my darkest movie for a bit. It was a really interesting exploration for me, but a lot of horror directors would probably say that at a certain point it is difficult to spend so much time thinking about the philosophical nature of really fucked up things.
THE EYES OF MY MOTHER is in UK theatres from 24 March 2017.
Read Steven West's review of THE EYES OF MY MOTHER here