A Lake Review
10th Belfast Film Festival review
With only two films to his name since his debut feature 1998, Philippe Grandrieux has nonetheless been one of the key figures of experimental cinema as well as leading the way towards the recent trend of extreme cinema coming from France, both Sombre (1998) and La vie nouvelle (2002) certainly showing a strong David Lynch influence with hints of Claire Denis and Gaspar Noé, only with a stronger tendency to push towards extremes. So when the Belfast Film Festival’s 2010 programme advertises the new Philippe Grandrieux film Un Lac as being “at once Grandrieux’s most accessible film and his most abstract”, it’s absolutely right, since while here there are no naked women being raped, brutalised and murdered, there has been however no compromise as far as pushing the narrative even further into abstraction.
Moving away from the obvious David Lynch influences of his previous two films, Grandrieux finds other means to express a sense of violence in the world and the distance that lies between people. It’s the extreme winter conditions of a lakeside location in the Swiss Alps that takes prominence over the storyline in A Lake, Grandrieux drawing on the misty darkness, the sharp contrasts between the black mountains and the deep snow, and the contrast in textures between the viscous-looking iced waters of the lake and the crystallised trees of the surrounding woods to establish a condition of life lived in extremis. The cinematography emphasises the condition right from the opening scene where a young man, Alexei (Dmitry Kubasov) is seen in close-up, violently hacking at a tall fir tree, the felled tree eventually causing a cacophony of breaks and crunches as it topples onto the floor of the snow-covered woods. Alexei himself is soon after likewise felled, collapsing to the ground and forming a hollow in the snow as he is shaken in the violence of an epileptic fit.
It is gradually established that Alexei is part of a family living in a small hut in the woods. We initially only see his sister Hege (Natalie Rehorova), which likewise sets off a series of impressions with the viewer of a dark fable or fairytale along the lines of Hansel and Gretel and raises questions about their relationship, but their mother Liv (Simona Huelsemann) and a younger child are also living there, and eventually there is the return of the father, Christian (Vitaly Kishchenko). It’s the presence however of another young man, Jurgen (Alexei Solonchev), an outsider who has arrived there he says to cut wood, that is to play a factor in disrupting their lives, on the one hand offering help and assistance when Alexei is lost in the woods at night, the victim of another epileptic fit, but on the other hand becoming close to Hege.
While the story never really develops far beyond the establishment of the relationships between the characters, there is still a lot of room left for interpretation, with plenty of inexpressive looks and silences between them. Although there is probably more dialogue in A Lake than in Grandrieux’s two previous films combined, that still doesn’t add up to much, and what is indeed spoken (the choice of East European actors speaking French used intentionally to remove conventional nuance in enunciation) reveals little of what the characters are going through or feeling. As ever with Grandrieux, one must look elsewhere and listen to the soundtrack – sound plays an important role in establishing and expressing mood in the director’s films – remaining open to the perturbing and deeply unsettling impressions evoked by the persistent mist and darkness, the sheer natural power of the locations and the fragile place of people among them.