Review: U – July 22
by Bénédicte Prot
- BERLIN 2018: Erik Poppe is in competition with a reconstruction of the Utøya tragedy, which is embarrassing on account of both its intentions and its predictability
Let’s make something clear right away for those who might not be aware: the slightly ridiculous “U” lurking in the title of U – July 22 [+see also:
interview: Erik Poppe
film profile], with its hashtag-like aftertaste, refers to Utøya, the name of the Norwegian island where the horrendous massacre we all know about unfolded in 2011. In the wake of the oh-so-conventional The King's Choice [+see also:
interview: Erik Poppe
film profile], which rousted the whole of Norway by looking back on the courage of its king in the face of Hitler, Erik Poppe once again seizes on a major event in the country’s history, trying to extract from its – in this case tragic – nature some kind of strength that his mise-en-scène is sorely lacking. U – July 22, screening in competition at the Berlin Film Festival, will certainly give addicts of mobile-filmed terrorist snuff footage something to assuage their voyeurism, which repeated views of the handful of videos uploaded to YouTube no longer satisfy. However, an audience coming to the movies to see proper cinema will no doubt have their patience tested by a film that has no real directorial flourish to back it up.
The first challenge for a filmmaker who wishes to take on a story that we already know the end to is probably not to let his project fall into the pitfall of predictability; yet in the case of Poppe’s new film, it is predictable on every level. Not that the movie is poorly made (at a push one might have preferred it to be somehow flawed or delicate), but the decision to use a real-time sequence shot loses all its brilliance when you are fully expecting it. Nor does it come as a surprise that the director trains his nimble camera, constantly immersed in the action without ever understanding what’s going on (which steeps the film in the same incredulous anguish that one can readily find in the user-uploaded videos that proliferate on the internet in the aftermath of a tragedy), not on the killer himself, but rather on the victims. Indeed, he concentrates particularly on a character whose side he never leaves: a responsible smart cookie by the name of Kaja, who, during the 72 minutes that the killing spree lasts, tries to find her little sister – an element that enables the director to add some suspense to previously known events.
Naturally, Kaja’s terrified (and terrifying) journey is peppered with several obligatory ingredients required when the possibility of imminent death presents itself (from bucket lists to hypothetical future plans as they hold out until the forces of law and order arrive – although they take far too long to turn up), and when you have a vulnerable group on the receiving end of a single individual’s senseless acts, which one will never be able to guard against. Seeing the young woman’s sheer nerve in the face of all the horror (her search even forces her to head towards the danger, contrary to the others), one finds oneself unwittingly thinking that the film might even top off its drive towards immorality if it let the most resourceful person of all survive the act of mindless violence – but once again, surprise surprise, the denouement is exactly what we would have imagined it to be.
As expected, the movie draws to a close by displaying several pages plucked from Wikipedia summing up the tragedy on Utøya (obviously without mentioning the name of the killer and stressing that the police took their sweet time to arrive). One comes out of the experience feeling embarrassed for the auteur behind the film, and mildly irritated in general.
(Translated from French)
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