Sunday 16 November 2014

LFO (2013)

Director: Antonio Tublén
Stars: Patrik Karlson, Izabella Jo Tschig, Ahnna Rasch, Per Löfberg, Erik Börén and Lukas Loughran
This film was an official selection at the 10th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of 2014 films.
I got a kick out of the originality of LFO on the big screen, because it really doesn't care about doing what other films do. In fact, it played at the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival as a showcase feature but I'm really not sure whether it counts as horror, sci-fi or something else entirely. Really it's all three, being a drama grounded in black comedy that eventually reveals itself as sci-fi, without a single giant monster, ray gun or spaceship, but sci-fi that is frankly more horrifying in its implications than most horror movies. The LFO in the title constitutes the sci in sci-fi, standing for 'low-frequency oscillation', sounds generated so low that the human ear can't hear them. This entire film sits on bedrock built by lead character Robert Nord when he discovers that a combination of four such oscillations cancel out everything else and instil a form of artificial hypnosis into everyone in range. Start thinking about what you would do if you found something like this and see if you're the twisted visionary that Robert is.

He's far from the usual lead character, but Patrik Karlson plays him to perfection, taking the relentlessly slow pace of the film and turning it, apparently innocently, into foreboding. Robert is on permanent sick leave from his job for reasons I didn't quite catch and his habit of not taking his meds, though his wife, Clara, stuck a permanent reminder on the bathroom mirror for him to do so, may be as important in the grand scheme of things as those four oscillations. Robert and Carla don't get on at all, not only because he ignores her to spend time in the basement with his sound equipment. She dismisses what he does as 'playing with his toys' and where he does it as his 'fortress of solitude', but he's really experimenting on himself. When the ambient relaxation sounds accompanying his wife's yoga sessions made him violently angry, something he calls a 'sound allergy', he started wondering about how to trigger other responses and we're quickly lost in the technobabble of it all, as befits what is, after all, a mad scientist story.

What's important here, among the oscillators, flashing lights and formulae, not to mention the apparent plethora of hidden references to drum machines and synthesizers, is that Robert clearly has delusions of grandeur. He's merely been talking about sound allergies with a couple of similarly affected folk, but one experiment on himself makes him lose five hours and suddenly he's convinced that he's going to win the Nobel Prize and change the world. Enter Linn and Simon, the folk moving in next door, and we have what we need to set the story in motion. It's worth mentioning two things at this point. One is that Robert isn't yet sending up too many flags, wondering about how he can ensure that his newfound knowledge won't fall into 'the wrong hands'. The other is that this is hardly the usual way to start a feature; our attentions have been almost entirely on one man in his own house doing little but talk. One of these things doesn't change while the other resonates because it does: we soon realise that Robert's are 'the wrong hands'.
Initially it's innocuous. Those five hours he lost were to a state of utter relaxation. What if we only needed ten minutes of sleep a day, like Judge Dredd gets? Robert easily hypnotises himself into giving up cookies because they make him fat. Imagine the possibilities! Well, there's the rub. Robert begins to imagine the possibilities for him that opened up with the arrival of Linn and Simon. He moves his prototype upstairs to switch on when they visit for coffee, putting on headphones to avoid being affected himself. He tells them to start thinking that he's a nice guy, that Simon should wash his windows and that Linn should develop a sexual hunger for him. It works promptly, precisely and perfectly: as soon as the device is off, they're a lot friendlier, Simon wonders if he could wash his windows along with his own and Linn finds a way to jump his bones. What was that about wrong hands again? Imagine if you could convince anyone to do anything just by pressing a button on a remote control. Power corrupts, right? Who watches the watchmen?

For a while it proceeds roughly as we might imagine, naturally escalating appropriately, but we soon find that the film asserts itself at points to highlight that it's as interesting as what is unfolding within it. The key scene here comes half an hour in, when Linn and Simon tell Robert that they're heading off for a trip to Copenhagen and ask him to look after their house while they're gone. Of course, he wires it for sound and tricks it out with his hypnotic device, so that when they get back he can listen in on them. Once he's instructed Simon to go to buy groceries and Linn that she just can't wait to have sex with him, he rushes over to get some and we find that we don't. We remain behind in Robert's house, listening in through the headphones he left in his kitchen. While we've followed Robert's antics throughout, it's at this point that we're placed emphatically and directly into his shoes, promptly discovering that we are doing precisely what he was just doing. The distance has gone. We're the ones in Robert's house now.

And that last statement is important too, because it's here that we realise that the film had never left it. We never visit Simon and Linn's house, just control it remotely. We never drive to the bank, when Robert realises he needs money so hypnotises Simon to rob it. We never go elsewhere to meet other characters; they all come to us. The entire picture takes place within the four walls of Robert's house, which becomes rather claustrophobic even though writer/director Antonio Tublén allows us to see quite a lot of it. In fact, it's claustrophobic not because we don't leave but because we're stuck there with Robert, who retains a consistent tone almost entirely throughout the film but which changes in our mind as we discover more about who he is, what he's already done and what he's going to do. Patrik Karlson, who outwardly seems to be an unremarkable middle aged Swede, endows his mild mannered character with magnetism that's impossible to explain except through talented acting. We can't stop watching him even as we want to.
I certainly shouldn't spoil the finalé with its grand ideas, the ones talked about first by audience members leaving the theatre before they start to backtrack to find the points where they might believe they would act differently. I want to talk about the second act, but firmly believe you should experience the dark and surreal comedy that it contains yourselves. This is an odd film in that it's at once funny and serious, with each approach never clashing with the other. There are no gags, no jokes, no overt triggers for laughter, but there's a supremely black humour to the way that Robert discovers that he has all the power of God but finds that having the power is only half the battle and he has to figure out what he should do with it. His relationship with his wife, which would be simplicity itself to spoil, is a fascinating concept on its own, and where his relationship with his neighbours goes is a sublime descent into the surreality of complete control and complete honesty. Tublén's strange imagination is one which we should be thankful for.

While the film was fascinating to me for its story, it's just as fascinating to me as a critic trying to write up a review of it. Beyond Karlson's superb performance at the heart of the film, all the usual angles on which to comment are closed. The rest of the acting is complex to describe, because there's very little of it and none of it is traditional. Robert is the only character who is continually on screen throughout the film, with three others that are prominent. However, without inadvertently throwing out spoilers, none can really be described as being themselves for long. Izabella Jo Tschig, Per Löfberg and Ahnna Rasch are tasked with a strange task, not to portray the characters themselves but those characters through a particular filter. I'm happy to say that all three are thoroughly interesting to watch. The few other actors on screen don't play characters as much as they do props and triggers for the story to escalate. Perhaps the most important is the voice on the radio who tells us all sorts of important details which we often fail to notice.

The cinematography is inherently limited because we're stuck in Robert's house throughout, which isn't a big one that might accomodate a lot of equipment. I did notice that many of the scenes that unfold in his 'fortress of solitude' are montage scenes and they seem to adopt the Automavision process that I've only previously seen in Lars von Trier's The Boss of It All. This has the director select each initial shot, but then allow a computer to move in a random direction. Tublén's previous feature, Original, made with Alexander Brøndsted, was partly produced by von Trier's production company, Zentropa. The soundtrack is notable, if as much for its prominence as its quality, because its background bleeps and chirps often take over to become the transitions between scenes. It's no surprise that Tublén himself served both as the picture's editor and composer. Clearly he's yet another fascinating name to follow in the Scandinavian cinema of restriction, as set in motion by von Trier. They just don't make films like this anywhere else.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very very good film, grips you from the start and doesn't let go till the end:-) must be the LFO ;-) a must watch film.