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GOCRITIC! Karlovy Vary 2018

GoCritic! Feature: To the Night


- Nick Mastrini takes an in-depth look at Karlovy Vary competition title To the Night, starring Caleb Landry Jones, combining his critical opinion with director Peter Brunner's remarks about the film

GoCritic! Feature: To the Night

The bold, impressionistic style of Austrian filmmaker Peter Brunner’s psychological drama To the Night carries an ambiguous narrative, whichportrays the personal trauma of Norman, an installation artist played by Caleb Landry Jones. Norman wavers between selflessness and violence, gripped by the struggle to cope with the death of his parents in a house fire he survived at the age of six. Jones’ simmering performance constantly anticipates a climactic scene of destruction, but what unfolds is more complex: Norman wants to preserve life, not destroy it.

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The film compels from its first frame, drawing attention to the production design by Katie Hickman with its shots of a glossy exhibition overseen by Norman, the room replete with glass boxes containing his dripping ice sculptures of suspended foetuses. His art, a scattering of mixed material work, lines his spacious Brooklyn studio-apartment, where he lives with his partner Penelope (Eleonore Hendricks) and their baby Caleb.

In a roundtable at Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, Brunner described To the Night as an "introspective character study through the eyes of someone who is trying to define love for himself … It’s this question of some who doubts himself to be loveable." The director conveys Norman’s familial bonds in intimate close-ups and with bright, sun-spilled lighting, but this domestic bliss quickly gives way to reveal Norman’s greater obsession with his childhood home, which still stands abandoned after the blaze that triggered his trauma.

Also working as the film’s editor, Brunner splices in slow-motion images of Norman’s silhouette stood by a blaze, arson-like, in front of this home. Throughout, the question of the character’s level of control in his own narrative remains. Juxtaposed with the character’s initial intimacy with others — his selfless care for Andi (Christos Haas), a visually impaired friend whom he tells to "keep smiling", is a well-executed sympathetic characterisation — these images anticipate violence and create tension in the context of Norman’s subjective reality. Considering the modern, spacious environment in which he can live and work, the reality of his life as an artist is auspicious. But his mental state dictates the film’s dark truth.

The director notes that, as opposed to the idea of Norman as a "destructive" character, "he would love to talk about this film more in the way of yearning and longing … which then becomes, in certain kinds of behaviour, something like addiction, or being drawn to getting all the love you can get at the same time." Flames consume Norman’s thoughts and prevent him from finding comfort; the camera inherits this lens of the "fear and anxiety in longing", as Brunner puts it, rather than a perspective of observational truth.

Norman wields these flames as if to convert trauma into strength, using lighters rather than blades to cut hair and plastic. A red-orange glow often imbues the film’s frames and flickers across Norman’s face like an inescapable blaze. In his studio, he stretches a line of crimson thread through a model version of his childhood home, plotting and retracing his entry into the building in the manner of a modern-day Theseus. Norman is burdened by survivor’s guilt, and frequently returns to the scene of his parents’ death to toil with his demons.

Once additional characters such as Luna (Jana McKinnon) enter the picture, Norman’s compulsive behaviour causes fissures in personal relationships. His post-traumatic stress leads to a monomaniacal approach to confronting the abandoned house; while Penelope detaches herself from his violent grasp, Andi remains close by him and Luna draws nearer. When he tells Andi to "follow the red", dangling the ball of thread before his damaged eyes, Norman guides him towards danger in a way that he perhaps doesn’t realise. Though it is difficult for the viewer to fully comprehend the reality of his intentions, Norman is plotting a path through this labyrinth of trauma, and Andi and Luna follow him with unpredictable consequences.

The success of cinematographer Daniel Katz’s work is in the way it allows Jones’ physical acting to flourish in shots that minimise distractions; every scene has its own colour scheme, whether in shades of red or a neutral, daylight tone. Close-ups linger on Jones’ twitches and spasms, forming a study of a complex character. Brunner describes his writing style as "intuitive" and addresses the "atmosphere" they would create on set to allow actors to explore their characters freely. This creates a film that is uniquely reflective of its protagonist’s focalised perspective. To The Night might unfold as an impenetrable narrative, but that is precisely its strength; as we peer into Norman’s psyche, we are drawn into the entirety of the film just as he is drawn back to his childhood home.

This article was written as part of GoCritic! training programme.

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