The prospect of re-imagining Mary Shelley's Frankenstein against the wintry backdrop of modern day Budapest immediately drew me to this French/Hungarian co-production that I had otherwise heard nothing about. But this is no horror film and eschews anything remotely concerned with reanimation of the dead, God complexes or allusions to James Whale or Boris Karloff. TENDER SON focuses more on the second half of Shelley's gothic classic - an abandoned son returning home to reconnect with a family that has forsaken him, with brutal and horrifying consequences.
All the characters in director Kornel Mundruczo's frigid drama remain nameless. A filmmaker (played by Mundruczo himself) is casting for a new project at the dilapidated tenement building where he is the only remaining occupant, save for the landlady on the floor above. A young man (Rudolf Frecska) wanders into the audition and the director - and the audience alike - is immediately drawn to his muted stillness. The audition ends in tragedy, however, as the boy react violently to his female counterpart's sexual advances, killing her before fleeing out the window. Later he returns and he is revealed to be the landlady's son who has recently fled from the orphanage where he had been abandoned many years previously.
When it screened in Cannes last year critics were not kind to the film, complaining that it had stripped the nuance from Shelley's novel by presenting an antagonist with no clear backstory or motivation and in making the monster into a real man had ironically robbed the character of his humanity. However I reacted very differently to what Mundruczo was trying to do and enjoyed the way he took the basic framework of the book's second half and slipped it into his film almost unnoticed. I suspect that had he not given his film the subtitle "The Frankenstein Project" many audiences would not have picked up on the similarities between the two stories. His commentary may well be simply that broken homes and institutionalization creates monsters as horrific and dangerous as anything Victor the medical student was tinkering with, but I found it effective and quietly terrifying.
TENDER SON beautifully captures that East European aesthetic of a once-opulent society in decay. The tenement building in which almost all the film is set makes for a wonderfully gothic modern day castle, complete with a large central stairwell that openly begs for someone to fall from, a collapsed roof perfect for a precarious chase sequence and any number of dark corners in which danger and the very real threat of death lurk menacingly. It is certainly not a film for everyone and the pacing will try the patience of those looking for Universal or Hammer style thrills, but that said, I went in expecting some kind of gritty, suburban body horror and although what I got was nothing of the sort, I came out suitably chilled.
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