Review: Hole in the Head
by Elena Lazic
- Irish director Dean Kavanagh finds imaginative ways to bridge experimental and narrative cinema in a feature about narcissism, caring and filmmaking
“Nobody is capable of really thinking about anyone, even in the worst calamity.” It is with this quote from Albert Camus’ The Plague that Irish filmmaker Dean Kavanagh begins Hole in the Head [+see also:
film profile], which played at the Seville Film Festival. But the film complicates that initial sentiment, as it goes on to suggest that one reason it can be hard to care is that it is difficult for people to understand each other.
The meta dimensions of such an inquiry in the context of the screen are almost dizzying: what is the greatest challenge facing a filmmaker, if not the need to make other people care about their film? And how much of that first depends on helping strangers understand what it is they’re seeing, what is at stake, and why the film matters at all?
Kavanagh makes this connection to filmmaking explicit by centring on a character who is himself a director. John Kline Jr (John Curran) is making a film about himself – more specifically, about his parents, who abandoned him in strange circumstances. Not that any of this is immediately clear: Kavanagh chooses to open the film with striking but rather dumbfounding images, showing John as he listens to a recording, or throws a dummy that looks a lot like himself over a hill. The movie is, in fact, torn between two extremes throughout, with decidedly experimental sequences on the one hand, and very clear bouts of straightforward narrative on the other, the latter even bordering on the mundane.
The reason for this gap isn’t immediately obvious, and in that sense, the film does feel like a mystery, of sorts. Soon after the puzzling opening sequences mentioned above, we are treated to a grainy montage of family pictures accompanied by some narration explaining in no uncertain terms what we are looking at: John Kline Jr’s own ancestors. From the almost abstract opening scenes, contrasted then by this matter-of-fact explanation sequence, we finally land somewhere in the middle – namely, in reality. The next shot indeed reveals an actor recording the voice-over we’ve been hearing, while John himself sits nearby. It seems that this director, mute ever since the day his parents abandoned him, does indeed live in a world where, by necessity, communicating means putting things very plainly (he uses a machine that speaks aloud what he writes down on it). But if he doesn’t try to communicate at all, then things can get confusing and random very quickly.
This dynamic is explored further in the core part of the film, which delves deeper into the making of John’s autobiographical movie. John has gathered in a manor – which he claims belongs to his family – the two actors hired to play his parents, as well as a sound recordist. Although it is a very small cast and crew, tensions run high, fuelled mostly by the cast’s frustration with what they’re asked to perform. The Camus sentiment would be an appealingly tragic explanation, but John may, in fact, be the real “villain” here: when the male actor questions a line of dialogue, the director refuses to discuss the script at all and asks him to just act the scene out the way it was written. He perceives his actors merely as tools for him to use, an attitude that takes him to a disturbing place later on.
Kavanagh, however, remains attached to his main protagonist’s unusual perspective throughout, one that allows for many experimental tangents sometimes signalled as John’s dreams, sometimes not. What they really are is of little importance, and Hole in the Head is best appreciated as a refreshingly free and imaginative play with form and texture, narrative and abstraction, film formats and sounds. By turns mystifying and moving, bleak and funny, the film builds to a finale as strange as it is oddly powerful.
Hole in the Head is an Irish production staged by Anja Mahler.
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