Review by Mike D’Angelo
Posted on 17 September 2009
Source 35mm print
Categories The 2009 Toronto International Film Festival
When a movie opens with someone awakening to find his shirt stained with blood, you can feel fairly confident that you’re not observing an ordinary day in this character’s life. What distinguishes Swedish director Jesper Ganslandt’s second feature, The Ape, is its steadfast refusal to acknowledge this self-evident truth. Indeed, the film’s greatest liability – though also its sole selling point – is Ganslandt’s coy decision to play keep-away with certain key plot elements, creating an apparent mystery that only winds up being a distraction from The Ape’s considerable formal virtues. Once that mystery has been “solved,” to nobody’s likely satisfaction (as it’s basically one big “duh”), it becomes much easier to let go of various “why” questions that clearly aren’t going to be answered and focus instead on the unusual experience this singular work offers. (Stop reading now if you’d prefer not to know the Big Lame Secret in advance, but spoiling this particular film arguably constitutes a favor.)
So. The protagonist’s name is Krister, and he appears to be in his mid-30s. Following the opening shot, in which he peels off his bloodstained shirt in apparent horror, he quickly splashes some water on his face and heads to his job as a driving instructor. We watch for nearly half an hour as Krister fields calls via his Bluetooth headset, berates one of his students, walks hurriedly here and there, and just generally behaves like a person struggling in vain to conceal his extreme agitation. Given the aforementioned blood, we can’t help but suspect that he may have done something not so wonderful, and it’s only when Krister finally returns home, and the camera casually pans over to take in the bloody corpse of a young woman sprawled on the living-room floor, that The Ape finally truly begins, even though Ganslandt clearly meant to initiate his somewhat daunting project from the very first frame.
Here’s the thing: You now know almost everything that happens in this movie. (There is one additional revelation that I won’t divulge, since it isn’t a foregone conclusion and inspires a productive curiosity.) Ganslandt isn’t interested in why Krister killed his wife or his girlfriend or whoever she is; he simply wants to observe how someone who’s committed an impulse murder might spend the next few hours, and how the knowledge of what he’s done would inflect even his most mundane actions. Oddly, the synopsis in the TIFF program book claims that lead actor Olle Sarri didn’t know what Krister had done until the big reveal was shot (in sequence)—hard to believe, because Sarri’s anxious performance oozes guilt and fear from every pore. In any case, it’s the deliberate disjunction between what Krister has done and what he’s doing right now that gives The Ape its modernist kick.
That said, this sort of thing can be taken too far. Not only does Ganslandt err in hiding the bloody corpse for so long, he then compounds that error by skipping past a crucial moment in the film proper, leaving us to wonder what happened in the elapsed time between two particular shots. Given The Ape’s otherwise dogged, all-but-real-time insistence on following Krister’s every banal move, this elision smacks of opportunism at best and cuteness at worst; either way, it seems designed primarily to get viewers arguing as the closing credits roll. Trouble is, they’ll be arguing about the wrong thing. Ganslandt works hard to create a genuinely haunting mystery – one pertaining to the infinitely malleable human psyche – and then undermines it by offering up a rib-nudging plot-based enigma. Both hardcore art nerds and ordinary filmgoers looking for something mildly provocative are apt to wind up feeling cheated.
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