• David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (11/6/2021)

(Reviews of Frankie; Shiva Baby; Me, Myself and Di; End of Sentence; Drunk Bus; and Safe Inside)


Cinemas are open again, then. But not everyone is going to want to sit in the dark being distracted by the prospect of whether everyone else in the auditorium is following the social distancing guidelines as strictly as they are.


Consequently, the streaming platforms who have done rather well out of lockdown are going to keep up their good work for the time being at least. Therefore, in addition to subscription sites like Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI, Netflix and the BFI Player, the likes of iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation will be staying open for business. Whatever choice you make, stay safe.


FRANKIE.


If there's one thing American film-makers have been consistently bad at, it's homages to European auteurs. Woody Allen has come closer than most with his encomiums to Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini. But the vast majority of those seeking to emulate the intense, but intimate continental style wind up producing stilted Chekhovian chamber dramas in which the characters speak in a theatrical argot that is utterly divorced from everyday life.


Having found a New York niche with Keep the Lights On (2012), Love Is Strange (2014) and Little Men (2016), Ira Sachs stood a better chance than most of striking the right balance. Yet, despite the deft nods in the direction of Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni, Satyajit Ray and Eric Rohmer, Frankie rarely feels much more than an earnest, elegant, but inert pastiche that falls some way short of the standards set by Iranian maestro Abbas Kiarostami in Certified Copy (2010).


Having been informed that the return of her cancer is irreversible, French actress Françoise Crémont (Isabelle Huppert) invites her family to join her on a farewell holiday in the historic Portuguese town of Sintra. Husband Jimmy (Brendan Gleeson) is struggling to come to terms with his imminent loss and sheds a tear while collecting pastries in a bakery near their luxurious hotel. His predecessor, restaurateur Michel (Pascal Greggory), is more philosophical, but feels Jimmy's pain and invites him to join him on a sightseeing tour with guide, Tiago (Carloto Cotta).


Back at the hotel, Frankie is chided for swimming topless by Maya (Sennia Nanua), who has never felt like the actress's granddaughter because her mother, Sylvia (Vinette Robinson), is Jimmy's child from a previous liaison. She is aware that Sylvia has started to look for alternative accommodation, as she has decided to divorce Ian (Ariyon Bakare) after two decades of marriage. So, she slips away to spend the day at Praia das Macas and hooks up with Pedro (Manuel Sá Nogueira) on the tram.


Paul (Jérémie Renier), Frankie's son by Michel, is hoping to move to New York and is trying to convince his mother that he has the wherewithal to go without her giving him his inheritance in advance so he avoids death duties. He is cross with Sylvia because she could do with some funds to make her break from Ian and Frankie scolds them for bickering.


While out walking in the woods with Paul, Frankie gives him an expensive bracelet, which he disdainfully tosses into the undergrowth before stalking off. She is still searching in vain when she bumps into Ilene (Marisa Tomei), a hair stylist she met on set some years before, who has been invited to Sintra with the express purpose of being matchmade with Paul. Much to Frankie's frustration, however, Ilene has come with her boyfriend, Gary (Greg Kinnear), a second unit Star Wars cinematographer who is hoping to make the transition to directing. He is devoted to Ilene and proposes that they move in together. But she doesn't feel the same way and had disappeared into a gaggle of tourists to collect her thoughts.


While her parents confront their issues, Maya smooches with Pedro above Apple Beach. Meandering between landmarks including a Moorish fountain that restores romance and a Catholic shrine with healing powers, Michel tells Jimmy how surprised he was that Frankie never realised he was gay and admits that their divorce was the best thing that ever happened to him. Meanwhile, she grins and bears the fact that she has been talked into attending the 88th birthday party of a female fan, while Ilene listens with growing unease to Paul's confession that he had slept with Sylvia when they were teenagers and had no idea that their mother and father were contemplating marriage.


More convinced than ever that she's not ready for commitment, Ilene seeks out Gary, who had been given a few pointers about relationships by Frankie while trying to pitch the prospect of her playing an opera singer who loses her voice in his debut picture. He cuts his losses and leaves, while the rest of the party join Frankie in an evening stroll up a hill that has a fine view of the surrounding landscape.


Despite the faint echoes of Forty Shades of Blue (2005) - in which Memphis record producer Rip Torn hosts an ill-fated family reunion - this episodic day in the life only fleetingly feels like an Ira Sachs picture. Part of the problem is that Sachs and cinematographer Rui Poças are too easily distracted by the beauty of the hill resort, with the result that they eavesdrop on the various conversations with a twitchy impatience that serves to emphasise the shallowness of the characterisation and the artifice of the dialogue that Sachs has concocted with regular co-writer, Mauricio Zacharias.


In fairness, the manipulative, but vulnerable Frankie is as sketchily limned as any of the secondary characters and Isabelle Huppert seeks to disguise this cursoriness by shrouding the ailing actress in a state of weary melancholia that is so affecting it seeps into scenes from which she's absent. So all-encompassing is her accidie, however, that her response to being trapped at a fan's birthday bash is all the more amusing.


Notwithstanding the sadness of the circumstances, a little more humour might not have gone amiss, as the solemnity of the acting merely serves to highlight the vacuity of barely connected subplots that are populated by ciphers with whom it's almost impossible to empathise. There are compensations in the performances of Marisa Tomei, Brendan Gleeson and Pascal Greggory, as well as moments of poignancy that are deftly illuminated by a Dickon Hinchcliffe score that also samples Schubert, Strauss and Debussy. But Sachs has schooled us to expect more.


SHIVA BABY.


Another week, another feature expanded from a lauded short. Back in 2018, writer-director Emma Seligman made Shiva Baby as her thesis film at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. Now, she has reunited with actress Rachel Sennott to work in some even more harrowing happenstances for college senior Danielle to endure at the family-packed post-burial reception for someone she barely knew.


Having reached a far from convincing orgasm during a mid-day tryst with the much older Max (Danny Deferrari), Danielle (Rachel Sennott) makes her excuses to leave, although not before she has collected the money she claims she needs to pay her way through law school. Hurrying across town, she meets up with her parents at a shiva and has to ask her mother who has died. Debbie (Polly Draper) is embarrassed by her daughter's shambolic life and is well aware that she is being gossiped about, especially because she is doing nowhere near as well as her ex-girlfriend, Maya (Molly Gordon). As she chats to Debbie and Joel (Fred Melamed), Danielle is dismayed to see Max arrive and is even more taken aback when it's revealed that he not only used to work with Joel, but that he is also married.


Max is just as surprised to see Danielle and manages to suppress his anger when he learns that she is still at college and has informed her parents that she makes her pocket money by babysitting, even though they pay all of her bills. He listens politely as Debbie asks if one of his relatives could find Danielle a job and looks on as mother sweeps daughter away to explain that Max is married to `a shiksa princess' named Kim (Dianna Agron), who promptly arrives with her bawling baby daughter, Rose.


Having accidentally torn her tights, Danielle goes to the bathroom, where she takes a topless selfie and sends it to Max's phone. In her annoyance, however, she leaves her own mobile behind and doesn't notice it's missing. Unable to watch Max and Kim together, Danielle volunteers to clean up some vomit and is waylaid by Maya. She thinks her ex is eyeing up Kim and tries to engage her in conversation. However, Danielle is envious of Maya's academic success and is tired of being constantly compared to her by family and friends.


Returning to the main room and more questions about her weight loss and relationship status, Danielle allows herself to be introduced to Kim, who inquires about her availability to babysit. When she hears that Kim earns more than Max, Danielle realises that he has been paying for their assignations with his wife's money. She tries to make a snide remark to hurt Kim's feelings, but succeeds only in drawing attention to the fact that she is wearing the same expensive bracelet that Max had given Kim.


Desperate to shut Danielle up, Max spills coffee on her and Debbie drags her out of the room. She pleads with her daughter not to embarrass herself in front of everyone, but she quickly finds herself caught up in a confessional chat involving Maya and Max.


Vainly believing that he and Danielle have been involved in some sort of romantic entanglement, Max is affronted when she follows him to the bathroom and tries to fellate him. He's not in the mood to be placated, however, and Danielle is relieved when she finds Maya having a crafty smoke outside. She admits to missing her and they kiss. But any hopes of a reunion are dashed when Maya finds Danielle's phone and not only sees the photo, but also reads her messages from an app called Sugar Baby.


Maya lets Danielle know that she has seen the phone, but refuses to return it. Meanwhile, she spots Kim chatting to her parents and sidles over to steer the conversation away from any potentially discomfiting topics. Unfortunately, Joel starts discussing Danielle's romantic history and she wishes the floor would open up and swallow her when he persuades one of the other guests to sing a lullaby from her childhood. In her mind's eye, she sees Kim draping herself over Max and joining in the chorus and she's relieved when the rabbi announce that it's time to pray.


Rose starts crying loudly and Kim takes her away, giving Max the chance to usher Danielle into the kitchen. He asks if their arrangement still holds and he is still awaiting an answer when Kim suggests they should head home. She hands Danielle her phone and asks her to hold Rose so she can feed her. Max and Kim begin to argue and, in a blind panic, Danielle smashes a vase. Sinking to her knees, she starts to pick up the pieces and is joined by Debbie and Maya.


Hoping to protect her daughter from any further gossip, Debbie announces that they need to help an old lady to her car. She sends Danielle and Maya to the kitchen to look for leftovers and they emerge on to the pavement to see Debbie and Joel coercing Max and Kim to accept a lift in their people carrier. As Rose screams, Joel searches for his keys and Maya reaches out to clasp Danielle's hand. Somehow sensing they're over the worst, they smile at each other.


There's something deliciously daring about basing a satire on feminist empowerment on a bisexual Jewish woman doing unofficial field work for her college gender studies course by actualising the transactional powers of her sexuality in duping a sugar daddy. But what makes Emma Seligman's debut feature all the more amusing is the fact that Danielle is very much a junior femme fatale, whose cloak of invincibility begins to unravel with the first tug on a loose thread.


Impeccably played by Rachel Sennott, Danielle gives off an air of cynical worldly wisdom. But her immaturity and vulnerability are cruelly exposed by a chance encounter at a family gathering at which there is no hiding place from the indignities that stack higher with each doomed bid to avoid taking responsibility for her actions.


The support playing from Polly Draper, Molly Gordon and Dianna Agron is equally flawless, as they each judge Danielle by markedly different standards. Draper has some choice Jewish mother lines that could have been scripted by Woody Allen in his heyday, while Gordon takes wry pleasure in her ex's predicament, while also remaining deeply attached to her. Agron has the dual duty of exposing how far Danielle is from achieving maturity, while also putting the reprehensible Danny Deferrari in his place.


Add in Fred Melamed's blithely trusting dad and you have a textbook ensemble, who interactions over a relentless 77 minutes are made all the more squirmingly excruciating by the way in which cinematographer Maria Rusche keeps everyone penned into the confined spaces conceived with claustrophobic discomfort in mind by production designer Cheyenne Ford. Feeding off the pacy speech patterns, Hanna Park's sharp editing keeps the pressure on the petulantly insensitive Danielle, as does the mix of staccato guitar riffs and piercing piano notes in Ariel Marx's jittery score.


Controlling everything with seeming effortlessness, Seligman imparts her own familiarity with the scenario and, thus, makes it feel as though she has stumbled into an actual shiva rather than staged one for the camera. Such is American cinema's debt to Jewish tropes that a reliance on the odd cliché and caricature is almost inevitable. The discussion of issues like individual and collective identity and the stifling nature of tradition might also have been weightier. But this is a refreshing rejoinder to all those nebbish comedies and would make a fine double bill with another film expanded from a short, Gillian Robespierre's Obvious Child (2014). Moreover, it suggests that Seligman is very much a talent to watch.


ME, MYSELF AND DI.


Anyone who had the misfortune to see the execrable Strangeways Here We Come (2018) could be forgiven for approaching Chris Green's sophomore feature with caution. Granted, Me, Myself and Di has the misfortune to land between two vastly superior holiday camp pictures in Claire Oakley's Make Up (2019) and Marley Morrison's Sweetheart (2020). But don't believe everything you've read about this throwback to such Reg Varney vehicles as Christopher Hudson's The Best Pair of Legs in the Business and Bryan Izzard's Holiday on the Buses (both 1973).


The working-class caricatures may sometimes be as crude as the sniggering innuendo and as gauche as the appropriated Bollywood dance sequences. But, for all its many missteps and tin-eared wit, Samantha Lloyd's screenplay genuinely tries to assume an outsider's viewpoint and send a positive message about being oneself and accepting people for who they are.


Janet Brown (Katy Clayton) works in a mini-market in Bolton. It's her 30th birthday and she's in serious need of cheering up after an online date goes humiliatingly wrong. Best friend Diana Vickers (Lucy Pinder) assures Janet that being fat and ugly had nothing to do with the bloke taking one look at her and fleeing. But she takes some convincing to go to the local working man's club with her parents, Tex and Margot (Russell Richardson and Chrissie Cotterill), and her brother, Andy (Wim Snape), who is dating Diana and wishes she didn't have to work as an exotic dancer.


Following a bizarre video for a meals on wheels service hosting a charity night, Ken the compère (John O'Mahony) draws the winning ticket in the raffle. Janet is overjoyed when she wins the firs prize of a week's stay at Craven's Holiday Camp in Rhyl. But Diana only agrees to accept her offer to be her plus one after she discovers she's pregnant and realises she needs some mindless distractions to help her decide what to do.


Undaunted by the fact they've been deposited in a storage caravan, Janet vows to enjoy herself and readily goes along with Diana's suggestion that she reinvents herself as Jeanette De Brun, a fashionista from Higher Bolton. The ruse works on Jonty (Tyger Drew-Honey), the nerdy nephew of camp owner Chris Craven (James Lance), who takes an immediate shine to Diana, who relishes his attention, as she needs to feel young and desirable.


Jonty is staying with mother Patricia (Jenny Funnell) and sister Araminta (Georgia Lock), who come to the camp each year to mark the passing of their father during the annual treasure hunt. Diana mocks his resemblance to Harry Potter, but Janet is smitten and feels bad about putting on airs and graces in order to impress him. Aware of her brother's shyness, Minty hopes they hit it off and urges her mother not to interfere after she declares Janet common. She also realises that Diana is bad for her friend's self-esteem, even though Janet insists she only has her best interests at heart.


Finding a quiet church, Jonty shows off his piano-playing skills and Janet is more smitten than ever. But Diana blames him when she fails to win the Battle of the Bikini Babes and her mood dips further when Andy is too tipsy to come and collect her. She tries to boost her spirits the next day by flirting with Orange Coat Bentley (Marek Oravec), but he admonishes her for being too old to play such silly games.


That night, Janet wins the talent contest with a Bollywood Dance routine. But her bubble soon bursts when Jonty comes back to the caravan and is shocked by the sight of his beloved in a little black dress and fishnet tights. Worse follows when Janet sees Diana giving Jonty an over-friendly hug and she throws away her gold cup on leaving the camp in deep distress.


Janet snubs Diana on their return to Bolton. But she helps Jonty and Minty find the shop where she works and breaks the news to Andy that he's going to be a dad. She cradles her bump at Janet and Jonty's wedding and looks on as the guests snake into the street doing a Bollywood conga.


The notification in the closing crawl that Janet will return will strike some as more of a threat than a promise. But Samantha Lloyd has created a clutch of serviceable characters in this amiable muddle of a movie, while the splendidly spirited Katy Clayton and the invidiously insecure Lucy Pinder do enough to merit another crack at playing Janet and Diana.


Despite the echoes of P.J. Hogan's Muriel's Wedding (1994) in Clayton's Toni Collettesque performance, this often feels as though neighbours of Peter Tinniswood's Brandon family have wandered into a smutty 70s sitcom spin-off. Such are our wokeful times, however, that there's nary a hint of Donald McGill sauciness, as Lloyd cracks some gentle and barely funny jokes about class, body image, cultural appropriation and the great British staycation.


Mercifully, Chris Green resists the temptation to direct with as full a throttle as he had used on his debut, although the charity video featuring Larry Lamb and Melanie Harris is excruciating. The cameos by Will Mellor and Perry Benson are also awkwardly integrated, while Green surely should have cut back on the drone shots and reined in James Lance, as the seedy camp owner. He might also made more of Rhyl and its coastline. But, when you think how tastelessly naff this might have been, one should be grateful for small murphys.


END OF SENTENCE.


Eight years after completing the shorts, Subculture and Sailcloth (both 2011), Icelander Elfar Adalsteins makes his feature bow with End of Sentence (2019), a father-son rite of passage that takes some familiar twists and turns, while consistently confounding expectations.


When cancer-stricken Anna Fogle (Andrea Irvine) visits son Sean (Logan Lerman) in his Arizona prison, he refuses to see his father Frank (John Hawkes). However, he is waiting at the gate on the day of Sean's release with an invitation to honour his mother's last wish by accompanying him on a sentimental journey to scatter her ashes on a remote Irish lake. When Sean's plan to relocate to California falls through because of his car-stealing past, he agrees to join his father on the flight across the Atlantic on condition that he is allowed to pocket the proceeds of the sale of a family property in Ireland.


Arriving in Shannon, the pair hire a car to drive to Dublin for a reunion with Anna's family. Frank is troubled by the discovery of an old photo of Anna with a strapping biker named Ronan and gets it into his head that she used to use her periodic trips home to meet up with her first love. Tired of his father's fretting, Sean drinks hard and flirts with Jewel (Sarah Bolger) after he notices her sitting at the bar. Reluctantly, Frank agrees to give her a lift and he's grateful for her company after Sean sulks on discovering the house he is due to inherit is derelict and picks a fight about Frank's failures as a father and his refusal to challenge his grandfather over the cigarette burns on his body.


Acting on a tip from Bridget (Mary McEvoy), they drive to the stud farm where Ronan works and Frank becomes more convinced than ever of Anna's infidelity when Ronan's brother reveals that his ashes were scattered on a lake near the border. Jewel tries to cheer him up and Frank takes a shine to her after she sings `Dirty Old Town' with a folk band in a bar. Sean takes exception to him getting her a room at their hotel and spends the night with her after a fight with Frank. But they are both left frustrated after she absconds with their hire car and Anna's ashes.


Reasoning that Jewel is heading to the ferry port at Larne, the Fogles give chase. Sean spots her in the queue for the boat and slips past security to confront her and recovers his mother. Continuing north, they smash the urn on almost hitting a deer in the road and they check into the nearby hotel with a small glass jar of the salvageable ashes. Frank gives Sean a ticket to fly to Oakland and secure his promised job. But he can't leave his old man to travel to journey's end alone.


Forced to walk after running out of petrol, father and son find a chapel, where Father Tobin (Denis Conway) not only gives them directions to the lake, but also reveals that Anna often used to come to the local convent on retreat. Relieved to learn that she hadn't cheated on him, Frank joins Sean in scattering the ashes and going for a swim. As they sit on the bank at dusk, Sean announces that he's going to stay in Ireland and see where the road takes him and Frank apologises for not being a great dad, but reveals that he had never spoken to his own father again after the cigarette incident.


With its majestic setting on the banks of Lough Tay in the Wicklow Mountains, the conclusion of this anfractuous odyssey is deeply satisfying. But there's also much to enjoy en route, as John Hawkes and Logan Lerman are coerced into speaking frankly for the first time in years and are left with little option but to deal with the emotions that rise to the surface. The fact they seem surprised that this is what Anna had intended all along suggests that there will be further bumps along the road once Sean returns Stateside. But the trip has left them better equipped to deal with everyday reality, even though neither appears to have benefited spiritually from their experiences.


With apprehension and regret etched into his face, Frank can be summed up by the fact he is so daunted by the prospect of having to drive an non-automatic car. His desperation to fulfil his wife's last wish is rooted in a recognition of his own flaws and the need to atone to Sean for putting him on the road to prison. However, Sean is too wrapped up in his own grievances to recognise the debt he owes to his father and it's only when they've been cleansed in the lake (which they are amusingly encouraged to visit by the parish priest, even though it's on private property) that they are ready to contemplate the future.


The byplay between Hawkes and Lerman is splendid throughout, although it becomes even more intriguing after they acquire a travelling companion. Yet Michael Ambruster's screenplay doesn't quite know what to do with Jewel and she ends up being more of a plot device than a fully fleshed character. But she's played with edgy charm by Sarah Bolger and there seems little doubt that Sean hasn't seen the last of her.


Eschewing cornball blarney and instructing cinematographer Karl Oskarsson to avoid postcard views, Adalsteins directs with a droll sense of life's little ironies. He also achieves a nice pace to proceedings that shamble along their winding road like a well-told shaggy dog story. There are a couple of tonal lurches, involving some chop shop guard dogs and a ferry security guard. But this confirms the promise shown all those years ago in guiding a silent John Hurt through the poignant Sailcloth.


DRUNK BUS.


The directing team of John Carlucci and Brandon LaGanke already have a string of amusing shorts to their credit, including Drone Boning (2014), which has been claimed as the first porn film to be photographed using a drone. By contrast, they profiled gospel singer Jerry Steinberg in the documentary, Tiny Giant (2013). They also satirised virtual assistant technology in Big Data L1ZY (2018), while they have produced quirky items like Infinity Tree (2017) under the name Ghost and Cow. Now, they make their feature bow with Drunk Bus.


Four years after graduation, Michael (Charlie Tahan) is still driving the campus bus on the night shift. Nine months have passed since girlfriend Amy (Sarah Mezzanotte) left Ohio for New York and he is still struggling to come to terms with the fact that the girl to whom he had promised his virginity has dumped him. Roommate Josh (Zach Cherry) is little help, but Kat (Kara Hayward) and Justin (Tonatiuh Elizarraraz) regularly ride along to keep him company and offer reassurance that things will work themselves out.


Bus controller Fred (Will Forte) also has faith in him and urges him to focus on attaining a safety certificate that will give him job security. But an altercation with an obnoxious passenger named Todd (Jay Devore) results in the hiring of a bodyguard, who comes in the hulking form of Pineapple (Pineapple Tangaroa), a Samoan American with a full facial tattoo.


He is curious as to why Michael puts up with the daily pelting of the bus by some frat boys and why he offers a nightly lift to an old man in an electric wheelchair who is known as FU Bob (Martin Pfefferkorn) because of his grumpy cursing. Pineapple is even more intrigued by Michael's private life and tries to spice it up by introducing him to drug dealer, Devo Ted (Dave Hill).


Over a fast food supper, Pineapple confides that he is an estranged father and keeps sharing words of Samoan wisdom. Michael allows him to take turns at the wheel and eventually entrusts the bus to him so he can join Kat and Justin at a party. However, it turns out to be Todd's birthday bash and Michael headbutts him because he has heard a rumour that he slept with Amy. Kat is furious with him and Michael comes to regret letting Pineapple talk him into letting goth Tara (Sydney Farley) tend to his split eye, as they wind up in bed for some decidedly freaky sex.


Michael is even more chastened when he loses patience with FU Bob for refusing to get on the bus and is mortified when he hears that he froze to death in the night. Despite being hurt by Michael asking Devo Ted about his background, Pineapple accompanies him to Bob's ramshackle abode, which is full of amazing portraits. However, they squabble again when Amy returns to Kent and asks Michael if they can resume their relationship.


Having exacted his revenge on the frat boys with a giant slingshot and realised that he loved Kat, Michael defies Fred's pleas on the CB radio and drives the bus out of town with `Not in Service' on the destination sign. Over the closing credits, we see Josh get behind the wheel with Pineapple as his muscle and Kat supervise the opening of FU Bob's exhibition. We also discover that Todd is responsible for the typos on the specials board at the diner on the bus route. But our anti-hero's fate is withheld.


Funnily enough, this doesn't matter much, as Michael's journey is far more important than his final destination. It will bother some that he gets there with the help of a man with a Ta Moko. But, while Pineapple has much in common with what Spike Lee once called `the magical, mystical Negro', he is given much more depth and vulnerability by screenwriter Chris Molinaro so that he can be played with winking integrity by Pineapple Tangaroa.


His byplay with Charlie Tahan keeps the picture on track. But Carlucci and LaGanke ensure the passengers are more than mere ciphers, with Kara Hayward particularly impressing as Kat, who emerges as Michael's sharp-witted conscience after he starts acting on Pineapple's advice to cut loose. There are missteps, however, such as the gag about the kissing lesbians and the fact that Josh is on a sex register because he keeps getting caught short and needing to pee in public places.


The co-directors make canny use of the Kent locations, with cinematographer Luke McCoubrey conveying both the atmosphere of the varsity town and the drabness of its snowy outskirts. He also captures the changing moods inside the bus, as rowdy shenanigans give way to morose mumblings as the shift approaches the wee smalls. The humour can be patchy and some of the tonal shifts grind slightly. But Carlucci and LaGanke are rewarded for both putting their faith in character and keeping it real.


SAFE INSIDE.


Americans Ana Walker (Andrea Tivadar) and Tom Dawkins (Tom Ainsley) are travelling across rural France by bus to work on a farm. Following a unexplained incident that seems to leave them as the only remaining passengers, they strike out across country to their intended destination. But there's something different about the blue house where they are welcomed by Richard (Steven Brand), who insists he has plenty for them to do in his garden.


From the outset, Tom is antagonistic and embarrasses Ana by calling their host `Dick' at dinner. But the pay is good and they set about removing some rocks from the lawn. Ana cuts her hand and Richard tends to it in a medical room that's so well equipped he jokes he's a serial killer before claiming that the remoteness of the estate has led him to becoming `le petit docteur' to the locals. Meanwhile. Tom has found some graves under a tree and confronts Richard over their contents during dinner. He explains that they belong to his dogs and retreats to his room.


Having discovered books with disjointed passages of text and records that fall silent after a couple of bars, Ana and Tom seek out Richard to ask what's going on. He claims that the books and discs are an accurate record of what he can remember, but Tom is too frustrated at being cooped up indoors by the rain to pay any attention.


Ana is woken by noises in the night and ventures into the forbidden barn, where she helps Richard by giving an injection to one of his dogs. It pains him that they suffer from a genetic abnormality and admits that it was a mistake to name one of the brood Freddie, as it's dangerous to form bonds. On returning to bed, Ana lies to Tom that she had been for water, but he had been watching her through the window.


The next day, Tom goes snooping and punches Richard when he accuses him of stealing. Pursued by snarling dogs, he makes a run for it and just about clambers over a wooden fence.


Instead of landing on the other side, however, he wakes in a hospital bed, where Dr Baptiste (Nicolas Navazo) and nurse Sylvia (Joanna Kulig) reveal that he has been in a coma for 12 days following the bus crash and that there is no guarantee that Ana will ever regain consciousness. Indeed, as her mother is in an asylum, the decision as to whether to turn off her life support will fall to Tom.


Having discovered that Ana's bed is next to Richard's on the coma ward, Tom steals medication to try and induce a relapse so he can rescue his girlfriend. But Baptiste catches him and forces him to discharge himself to avoid facing criminal charges. Nevertheless, he travels to the blue house and is dismayed to discover that it's derelict. Amidst the rubble, he finds some fully printed books and a family photo album and returns to the hospital to beg Baptiste to put Ana in a separate room for her own safety.


Sylvia confides in Tom that Richard made his money producing brain scanners and wound up at the clinic after being attacked by his dogs. She urges Tom to contact the embassy to help Ana, but he reveals that he jumped probation to make the trip and will get into serious trouble if he contacts the authorities. But that doesn't stop him from sitting by her bed and talking to her in the hope of triggering a memory. Unfortunately, he witnesses Ana and Richard's comatose bodies exhibiting the signs of intercourse in their dream world and he jumps from a window after being prevented from smothering his rival with a pillow.


Despite sleeping with Richard, Ana quickly comes to feel suffocated and asks to walk in the adjoining lavender fields. However, she has spotted Tom searching for her and she figures out that she is trapped inside Richard's mind after he stops her from escaping. He also saves her when she attempts to slash her wrists in the bath and tries to make her see that this is her last hope of existence, as all that awaits her outside his sleeping imagination is death.


But Ana's mind is made up and she befriends his dogs so that she can make them obey her orders and emerges from her coma, as Richard perishes during a repeat of the savage attack that had incapacitated him. In reuniting with Tom in the lavender field, however, Ana realises that he has died and that she is about to return to normal life alone. There is disbelief and dread in her eyes, as they slowly reopen.


Closing captions estimate that 20% of the tens of thousands currently lying in comatose states will remain trapped, despite manifesting electrical activity that differs significantly from that of a sleeping person. Of those who do come round, many report having had life experiences that belong entirely to their soporous state. Yet researchers have yet to deduce how and why during such times the brain manages to operate independently.


Despite telling a very different story, Renata Gabryjelska's feature bow contains echoes of Eric Bress's Ghosts of War (2020), which was made later but released earlier. Working from the director's outline idea, Blazej Dzikowski adroitly treads the line between melodrama and science fiction. But some of the pieces need patting into place and this coercion jolts the audience out of their suspended disbelief. This is a shame, as the twist is a decent one, even though it's rather signposted by the abrupt cut to black on the bus. But what really undermines the narrative is the fact that neither of the male characters is remotely likeable and Ana loses sympathy by consorting with them. That said, she also take a turn for the resistible after she comes to regret sleeping with Richard.


While Tom Ainsley and Steven Brand exhibit contrasting levels of schmuckishness, British-Romanian actress Andrea Tivadar calmly walks away with the picture. She is photographed by Piotr Kukla in a serene manner that mirrors her low-key performance, as though she is floating through the interiors designed by Daria Dwornik and Stanislaw Tyczynski.


The house itself helps reinforce the sense of ethereality, although the special effects used to turn parts of the Polish countryside into Gallic lavender fields are less convincing. Similarly, Elia Cmiral's score is sometimes allowed to drown out Michal Fojcik's delicate sound design, with the mellifluous strings swelling mawkishly during Tom's gushing bedside declaration of love. Given that Gabryjelska has focused on short documentaries to this point in her career, she can be forgiven such lapses. But it would be interesting to see her sole fictional short, Cacti Don't Bloom Over Here (2008), as it also seems to have explored the notion of anger giving way to sacrifice in order to deliver someone from trauma.


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