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.
INTERVIEWS, FILM, BLU-RAY, DVD AND BOOK REVIEWS
BLU-RAY Review - THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN ****
Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Starring Hanna Schygulla, Klaus Lowitsch, Ivan Desny, Gisela Uhlen. West Germany 1979 120 mins Certificate: 15 USA 2014
Out now from Arrow Video
After making 41 movies in 13 years, Rainer Werner Fassbinder was dead at the age of 37 in 1982 following an overdose. Three years earlier he had his greatest commercial success with THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN, a film that forms part of an unofficial trilogy with LOLA and VERONIKA VOSS – a series of movies that all take place in post-WWII West Germany and pivot around a strong female character. MARRIAGE, like the other two films, is rife with autobiographical references (including a Fassbinder cameo as a peddlar) and offbeat stylistic choices, including occasionally questionable use of music.
The opening offers a chaotic, attention-grabbing entrance into the eponymous marriage of Maria (Hanna Schygulla) and Hermann Braun (Klaus Lowitsch), who wed amidst the explosions and carnage of World War II’s imminent end. When Hermann is shipped out, Maria gains employment as a dancer / prostitute at a club catering for American GIs, one of whom (a memorable George Byrd, in his only theatrical film credit) she falls for when Hermann’s death is prematurely announced. Hermann turns up alive and the ensuing confrontation with Byrd results in his jail sentence, leaving Maria to become a mistress to a prominent businessman while pledging to get her husband released, whatever happens.
Cannily shot with a visual palette elegantly transforming from the muted, muddy tones of war to the optimistic hues of Maria’s later life, this allegorical drama is consistently absorbing and funny. In a stand-out, multi-layered performance, Schygulla is a sexually charged, endlessly witty and strong-willed heroine for the ages. The actress gets all the best lines, from the suggestively naughty (“I know all about schoolboys…”) to the marvellously insulting (“Imagination would only be a liability for you…”). For Schygulla alone, the film is a must-see.
Fassbinder’s stylistic tics and staccato editing are potentially alienating, as is the astonishingly bleak – albeit ambiguous – explosive conclusion, though there’s no denying the wit, intelligence and cinematic fervour on display throughout.