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DIAGONALE 2019

Review: Garden

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- The new feature by Austria’s Peter Schreiner takes viewers on a sensorial journey through an eerie space, in which the characters express their innermost thoughts

Review: Garden

Emotionally dense and narratively unconventional, Peter Schreiner’s Garden [+see also:
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, which celebrated its Austrian premiere at the Diagonale (19-24 March), lets its handful of vulnerable characters encounter each other in the eerie titular location and a few interior rooms, spaces shown in high-contrast, black-and-white images and with unsettlingly broad camera movements, which at no time give the viewer the impression of belonging to the realm of the real.

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From the mere shadow of a premise that the film provides, it can be understood that Awad, a filmmaker, and Hermann, a production designer, receive a letter from Julia, whom they both loved in their youth. In it, she admits she is suffering from a severe illness that remains unnamed. As the film progresses (the movie we are seeing appears to be, following Garden’s logic, the one that Awad talks about wanting to make), we find the trio reunited, seemingly trapped in a mysterious place that belongs neither to the realm of the real nor to the present, but instead appears to be closely connected to a particular frame of mind. The thoughts uttered by the three people are almost always somehow related to death or prompted by its proximity. In a sort of intermediate world, Awad, Hermann and Julia talk about their regrets and fears, loss and grieving, childhood memories and life-threatening situations that they have found themselves in. 

At times, the characters, who talk about themselves in the third person, make us doubt whether what they are recounting is biographically true, fictional or, as the closing text will to some extent confirm, a blend of both. Awad, in actual fact a Libyan migrant in Vienna, was indeed kidnapped by the militia, kept imprisoned and tortured; Hermann is a Viennese artist whose wife suddenly died in an accident; and Julia, whose actual name is Giuliana, does indeed have a serious health condition. As the camera often brings us very close to them, the three are almost intimidatingly exposed. The encounter between them that the film facilitates (even though there is very little that is facile about it) is an utterly intimate one. 

Another striking aspect of the manner in which Awad, Hermann and Giuliana deliver their lines is the fact that a dialogue, in the classical sense of the word, rarely emerges. Instead, we witness an accumulation of ideas, and the movie provides us with what sounds more like brief fragments of its (non-)characters’ streams of consciousness. 

Certainly unsettling and disorientating, Garden’s editing and its smooth camera movements let night flow into day, and the spaces shown in the film intertwine seamlessly, reminding us that the titular place is one in which the physical rules of day-to-day reality do not apply, and that cinema itself is a medium that has the freedom to defy and manipulate them, particularly in its attempt to make emotions and moods visible.

Garden was produced by Schreiner’s own Austrian company, echtzeitfilm, which is also handling the world sales, and celebrated its world premiere at this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam, where it screened in the Deep Focus section.

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