The Cleaner: Genre meets drama in a grim urban story
by Martin Kudláč
- Peter Bebjak’s latest feature-length outing, screened at CinEast 2015, fuses genre fare with psychological drama
Recent Slovakian fiction feature The Cleaner [+see also:
interview: Martin Žiaran
interview: Peter Bebjak
film profile], which was shown at CinEast 2015 after being world-premiered at the Warsaw Film Festival, starts off as a genre film but soon slips into the territory of a more serious psychological drama. While there is still a dearth of genre-film production in Slovakian cinema, The Cleaner doesn’t actually go all out to rectify this situation, but rather uses certain genre templates and conventions as a vehicle. Helmed by versatile director Peter Bebjak, who has been crossing over between film and television as well as hopping from one genre to another (his previous outing was a horror in the mockumentary/found-footage vein), this film has all the hallmarks of a solid genre effort.
Tomas lives alone in an empty, ramshackle apartment, commuting to work every day on a bicycle. The mostly silent protagonist, who has retreated into his shell and is thus cut off from any social connections, works for a local funeral business as a specialist in cleaning out the flats of the recently deceased. Like most of his activities, his work is also carried out in total solitude. On one occasion, while deeply immersed in the anonymity of his job, he finds himself in the presence of some residents. Taking care not to reveal himself, he observes the family during their dining routines, taking advantage of his veil of invisibility. Tomas gradually transforms into a harmless voyeur, rather than a predator – until one routine job leads him to get more attached to an unaware tenant.
His interest morphs into obsession in the apartment of a local girl, Kristína, where he witnesses the darker side of her life within the four walls. Bebjak toys with the conventions of the home-invasion formula, enveloping it in a damsel-in-distress narrative; he thus pieces together the jigsaw and sketches out a psychological portrait of two scarred people trapped in their secluded inner worlds, behind the closed doors of their flats. The guilt-ridden and self-loathing Tomas, spurred on by a mix of sympathy, fondness and atonement, decides to take action.Writers Bebjak and Peter Gašparík subtly play with motifs and allusions as they skirt around this unlikely romance. The stigmatising backgrounds of both characters, which touch upon a number of serious issues, usher The Cleaner into the territory of an edgier drama blended perfectly with genre fare. The film is thus likely to appeal to a wider audience without this impinging on its urgency.
In addition to the stigmas and personal hardships, another layer emerges through the ambivalence about the degree of responsibility one has for one’s life – yet another building block in this story of loneliness, guilt, survival, hope and the prospects of an eventual redemption. The wide array of motifs is tackled in a minimalistic style and is underpinned by a social dimension akin to that found in other recent Slovakian films picked for foreign festivals.
Space effectively conveys the unspoken parts of the narrative, thanks to the dramatic cinematography by talented DoP Martin Žiaran, who was crowned with the Golden Eye Grand Prize and Risk Shot Award for the faux one-take Czech drama Hany [+see also:
interview: Michal Samir
film profile]. Fixed, close-up shots form a counterpoint to reinforce the internal tension in the otherwise Handycam-shot action. The low-key lighting, toned-down palette and gloomy atmosphere all contribute to the noir vibe and bring out the feeling of urban depression.