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 - WAKING LIFE ****
Directed by Richard Linklater. Starring Wiley Wiggins, Charles Gunning, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Steven Soderbergh. USA 2001 99 mins Certificate: 15
Out Now From Arrow Video.
The first digitally rotoscoped animated feature film – preceding its filmmaker’s Philip K Dick adaptation A SCANNER DARKLY by five years – WAKING LIFE is a thoughtful indulgence from writer-director Richard Linklater. Its endless chain of literary and cinematic references (Truffaut, Poe, Timothy Leary, Dostoevsky, Kurosawa, Louis Malle et al) and copious nods to Linklater’s own past features (notably SLACKER and BEFORE SUNRISE) may be as off-putting to some as the film’s own deliberately episodic and navel-gazing format, but there’s no denying the intelligence and visual sense of its creator.
Inspired by the phenomenon of lucid dreaming and infused by LSD experiences, the film revolves around an unnamed central character (Wiley Wiggins) who dreams his way through a series of existential encounters while boldly striving to solve the enigma of dreams and their relationship to waking life. Floating above the streets to engage with a disparate cross-section of verbose characters, his experiences raise questions of language, alienation, controlling dream states and the media’s role in the transformation of all of us into passive observers. A central, recurring theme is that of the mundanity of our universal daily experience and the sense of how so many of us sell our “waking life” for a barely adequate wage and even witness the knock-on effect upon our dream-space. Someone remarks that, rather than being alive, we are actually “asleep in life’s waiting room”.
One of the most visually striking and unique American films of its period, WAKING LIFE has a shimmering, evocative look and ambience, punctuated by many lovely grace notes within the pioneering animation. An abrupt act of self-immolation is among the film’s disarming visceral detours, while the vocal performances are distinctive and compelling. Fans of the trilogy Linklater began prior to WAKING LIFE with BEFORE SUNRISE (1995) and completed in 2013 with BEFORE MIDNIGHT, will particularly appreciate the presence of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy portraying the same characters.
Certain sections, perhaps inevitably given the structure and form, feel more self-indulgent and engage less than others – notably a specific interlude on cinema showcasing director Steven Soderbergh as himself. Mostly, however, it is an impressive intellectual flight of fancy that pivots around an inspiring, early 21st century call to arms for humankind to escape its own self-enforced slavery and stand up to the so-called powers that be.