Austrian filmmaker Ruth Mader's second feature is familiar yet still intriguing.
Conspiracies have receives unprecedented amounts of attention, peaking in the last two decades among the general public. As a concept, a conspiracy offers an ideal narrative template, similar to a crime story, keeping the recipients immersed in a story.
Every form of storytelling has made use of such narratives, from literature, graphic novels, television shows, and videogames to mainstream and arthouse cinema. Due to the template, a conspiracy can by regarded as a subgenre of a mysterious drama or thriller; however, the sheer amount of narratives legitimizes it as an autonomous genre and, if used more ascetically, as a trope.
Austrian filmmaker Ruth Mader embraces the concept from both sides in her sophomore fiction feature, euphemistically titled Life Guidance. The title refers to an enigmatic and ominous company vaguely introducing its services as helping overachievers to become the top of their class.
Mader invokes a snapshot of the near future that is dystopian – another genre enjoying booming popularity in the last couple years - through the family of Alexander Dworsky, an overachiever displaying the syndromes of burnout. Dworsky, always in a perfectly ironed suit, always stiff and uptight, resembles a Wall Street banker, while enjoying the benefits of the upper class: a wife and a kid in perfectly ironed clothes, a perfectly designed household, a luxurious car. The perks and the lifestyle itself arrive at the cost of a generalized anesthetization; it's a comfort of hopelessness.
A stranger resembling a happy-go-lucky cult member with a dumb smile visits Dworsky, introducing himself as an employee of Life Guidance and his personal advisor on the road to achieve a better version of himself. He soon starts to investigate the outsourced agency with seemingly unlimited resources, which has a file on him and seems to know more about him than he himself.
The most obvious handling of Maders story offers itself via the timeless optics of Franz Kafka. Life Guidance can be perceived as The Trial set in aseptic capitalism. The more layers the protagonist peels away about the central company, the more ominous and sinister contours it acquires.
Similarly to Kafka´s victimized protagonist, Dworsky finds a temporary relief and almost an epiphany in a church. Nearby the church lies a complex referred to as The Fortress of Sleep. The Fortress turns out to cater to heavily sedated under-achievers moving around the compound as somnambulists. The writer-director lightly implies the social order of the bland and uniform capitalism while backhandedly pitting the profane against the sacred, although the motif remains underdeveloped.
Life Guidance, similar to The Trial, remains a canvas half-painted, inviting viewers to finish the other half. It could be a scathing critique of everything capitalistic devouring personalities and identities. However, Austria already has the court satirist of the capitalism and consumerism and his name is Daniel Hoesl.
The template of conspiracy along the bleak vision of the near-future fits neatly as a metaphor of a system crushing individuals unwilling to submit. Given the current circumstances in Europe, the proto-fascist allegories are making their comeback once again.
Ruth Mader's team finds harmony in bringing her vision on the screen. Cinematographer Christine A. Maier opts for steel blue-ish tinge of a sterile environment castrating the personality, not only from characters but the places themselves. Maier succeeds in enhancing the spaces with esprit de non-places, while production designers Renate Martin and Andreas Donhauser, along with the location scout, made them possible, especially the headquarters of Life Guidance.
Life Guidance does not turn the genre and the trope of a conspiracy wedged into a dystopian setting on its head. Rather, it dwells in familiar territory. However, the film´s inbred ambiguity guarantees its interpretative versatility and a second life beyond the border of its country of origin, seeing the protagonist raging against the machine. And there is always a space for the reputed wicked laughter of Kafka.