[With Koen Mortier's 22nd Of May now screening in Sitges we revisit our earlier review.]
With his searing debut Ex Drummer Belgian director Koen Mortier
burst onto the scene with a sort of punk rock bravado, a raw and
abrasive style laid atop remarkable technical skills and a surprising
amount of soul for those willing to muck about in the filth of his
characters' lives to find it. With 22nd of May - his sophomore feature - returns to serve notice that the soul of Ex Drummer was no accident. If Ex Drummer was Irvine Welsh cranked up to eleven then 22nd of May is a sort of dark cousin to Wings of Desire
era Wim Wenders, a film in which the line between the physical and the
spiritual are blurred to the point that they become meaningless and the
spirits of the dead roam freely with the living.
Louwyck is Sam, the blue collar security guard at a small, mid level
shopping center. He lives alone, his largest companion the thermos of
hot coffee he takes with him to work. His life is bland, nondescript,
until the day that a suicide bomber picks Sam's mall for the site of his
attack. The result is devastating, so much so that Sam is simply
overwhelmed at the carnage that after pulling a a pair of
mangled bodies out of the destruction he simply turns and runs into the
supposed security and anonymity of the city.
But the city is not
what Sam expects. It is deserted. Barren. And the only souls he will
encounter there are the souls of the dead, those killed in the bombing.
Some are angry, angry at Sam for not protecting them. Some are mournful,
aware that they will never complete the unfinished business of their
lives. But all feel the need to unburden themselves, to tell their
stories, and Sam will be their audience.
A sort of metaphysical response to the images of destruction splashed across screens in the nightly news, 22nd of May
roams freely through a sort of purgatory as it portrays the victims of
senseless destruction. It is an entirely more somber film than was Ex Drummer,
one much more firmly in the arthouse camp as it abandons any sort of
traditional narrative structure or much in the way of character arcs
choosing to simply present a series of portraits of the victims as they
were when they died. Louwyck - familiar to Mortier fans from his role in
Ex Drummer - becomes the eyes of the audience, absorbing all of this loss while trying to come to terms with his own failings.
As befits the material the visuals here are much 'smaller', for the most part, than they were in Ex Drummer
but that is not to suggest that Mortier is hiding away his skills -
rather he's just harnessing them in a different way. In its early,
starkly unvarnished portrayal of Sam's home life Mortier opens with a
roaming, deceptively well choreographed single take shot that runs to
nearly four minutes that provides a sort of visual explanation of our
lead character, telling us all that we really need to know about him.
Likewise, as the film progresses we realize that what seemed like an
early, basic crowd shot was actually a tightly choreographed
introduction to each of the major players in the film. This is a film
that rewards those who pay attention. Details matter. As for the bombing
itself, we get that twice. The first time it plays as starkly real,
purely from Sam's perspective outside the building - the blast throwing
him forward and temporarily deafening him. Then, at the end, we
experience it again, this time from inside the building in a stunning
slow motion sequences that shows the literal impact of the blast on each
of those caught within it in staggering detail.
Though far less commercially minded than his first picture, 22nd of May
is no less remarkable a piece of work, one that immensely broadens the
understanding of who Mortier really is and what he is really capable of.
If Ex Drummer suggested the arrival of a major talent, 22nd of May confirms it.
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