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BLACK NIGHTS 2016 Estonian Film Competition

Pretenders: A cold fable of a failed relationship


- Vallo Toomla’s debut film is a claustrophobic study on the dynamics of a relationship on the rocks – with a metaphysical twist

Pretenders: A cold fable of a failed relationship

After being premiered in San Sebastián’s New Directors competition as the first-ever Estonian film in the festival’s programme, Vallo Toomla’s dark first film Pretenders [+see also:
film profile
has been shown in the Estonian Features Competition at the Black Nights Film Festival in Tallinn.

It seems that, as a couple, Juhan (Priit Võigemast) and Anna (Mirtel Pohla) have grown to tolerate each other. They remain courteous in their conversations, and the underlying tensions in their relationship are only hinted at. When they get an offer from a friend to go and house-sit their luxury abode on the beach, it sounds like a welcome chance to freshen things up. Everything seems fine at first, but a series of events are set in motion by the unexpected appearance of a hippie couple, played in an uninhibited but somewhat ominous manner by Meelis Rämmeld and Mari Abel. After they’ve been stranded in a storm, Anna invites them to stay, much to Juhan’s chagrin. The differences between the two couples become more and more evident, and, bit by bit, the conversation game gains social, political, sexual and ideological undertones, until something has to give, and it all spins out of control.

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Pretenders is surely a slow burn, but the tension is maintained masterfully throughout the film, helped by Toomla’s careful phrasing of the scenes, suggestive dialogue, Latvian composer Kārlis Auzāns’ dark, humming, minimalist score, and the sinister omnipresence of the glass-and-chrome maze of a building that forcefully asserts itself as the fifth main character in the film. The house seems to serve several different purposes in the film: it is a visual depiction of Juhan and Anna’s relationship – a cold and soulless space governed by reason and order. Once the façade starts to crumble and things get misplaced and broken in the house, so Anna and Juhan’s mutual politeness finally gives way to spite and anger. The house, which was supposed to liberate their relationship, becomes a transparent, modernist prison, a panopticon that serves as a witness to petty human drama. Everything is laid bare. The couple’s bourgeois experiment of settling down and finding their own space fails horribly when the hippie couple enters the scene, as they seem to be the mirror opposite of Juhan and Anna, and lead their life apparently in a manner governed by chance, impulse and instinct, rather than reason and good sense. The couples clash with each other, neither being able to understand the other, displaying the classic conflict between order and chaos. 

The arc of the gradual descent into conflict could have been realised in a slightly smoother manner, but once we’re there, Toomla caps it off with a transcendental ending that might annoy audiences used to television-style, clear-cut conclusions, but could appeal to those who appreciate ambiguity and room for interpretation. Pretenders is a psychologically and artistically ambitious first feature by a director worth keeping an eye on.

Pretenders was produced by Amrion (Estonia), and co-produced by Studio Uljana Kim (Lithuania) and Locomotive Productions (Latvia).

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