It's been hard to find something truly worth writing home about since opening night of this year's 68th Berlinale programme, but thankfully Swedish film The Real Estate (Toppen av ingenting) has finally exploded onto the scene.
Like a cinematic pipe bomb that directors Axel Petersén and Måns Månsson have slyly left in the midst of the (occasionally mediocre, sometimes truly terrible) Official Competition strand this year, The Real Estate has sincerely blown audiences to polar opposites of opinion. But in terms of the viewer experience it achieves, I think it's a form of fire that is well worth playing with.
The movie itself seems to open pretty benignly, with a close‐up snapshot of something as harmless as a trip to the hairdressers. We fade in to find a wizened Léonore Ekstrand receiving a quick hair colouring and a general spruce, as a male hairdresser gently warns that the water might be a bit hot. But before long, a sort of socially critical or even dark satirical overtone seems to rear its ugly face. The two characters discuss the hardships of getting onto the property ladder in modern‐day Sweden, with the hairdresser remarking that "without rich parents," you're screwed.
The slow-burning Scandinavian irony here is that Ekstrand's character Nojet is actually just such a person who has had a leg up onto the property ladder. And just like the film's constantly myopic vision, Nojet can only see her needs, and she will fuck over you, your whole family, and anyone she needs to, to get the money she wants. In short, she is your typical noveau riche landlord, who by forunate mysteries Generation Rent may never fully understand, has just happened to have a massive renting complex fall into her lap.
And whilst this might not be a character anyone I would expect you to sympathise with any time soon, she's a really fascinating female antihero, of a Mildred Hayes type age (perhaps suggesting a sudden, and perhaps limited flourishing of strong, interesting older female characters). But we certainly don't know all this right away. The Real Estate, like its main character, is one cool cookie, and it keeps its cards incredibly close to its chest.
We never leave the opening scene's close‐up style, constantly sitting on the shoulders of character - lingering so close in their shadow, you can observe the intricate hairs on their face, and see the beads of sweat form on their brow in relentless, muggy, intimate detail. But you definitely can't always know what they're thinking or doing. In true arthouse style, several minutes elapse at a time with little to nothing being explained, and you have to piece together for yourself that Nojet has very recently inherited a luccrative rented appartment complex.
Except, unlike a lot of Berlinale films that have used this technique of resisting telling you what is going on, The Real Estate actually really works. The directors' slowly drip feed you just enough info about what drives Nojet's wierd behaviour, and always just at the right time. What's more, her motivation ‐ whilst perhaps an ugly one ‐ is definitely an easy one to follow once it shows its face, something which definitely helps suck you into this left‐field film.
Throughout, Nojet's one burning drive does not deviate: she wants to sell up and make as much money as she can from the vast property that has fallen into her hands, as fast as she can. You just perhaps don't realise right away how much of a Cruella de Vil type character she is, or the full lengths she will go to. But I truly loved the way this scrawny, creeping, Machiavelli unexpectedly goes full Rambo by the end of this movie. We're talking Anarachist Cookbook and weilding a sub-machine gun on her own family type badassery. It's a tale of a late sixties female character that for my money is simply fantastic, and there's a twisted fire starter in my brain that The Real Estate definitely tapped into.
Plus the directors' whole hearted rejection of establishing shots and a wide focus lens keeps you so jacked in, it's hard not to get hooked on what's making the characters tick. It really does get under your skin too. As a sort of motion‐sickness‐inducing style, it might have been divisive, but it felt like such an exhilirating, fresh and daring vision, and I love how it proved to be such a great way of unexpectedly satirising the figure of the evil landlord and the theme of money-grubbing greed.
Admittedly, you're so constantly rammed into the actors' personal space, it definitely feels grotesque; and the characters' bodies are often so potted, wrinkled and blemished that it's very difficult not to find it nauseating. But I definitely think that's the point, and in terms of a feel-bad cinematic experience, it really is weirdly, captivatingly brilliant. It's like watching something evil unfold, and not being able to quite resist.
There's also something hellish in the look of almost every frame of this film, on which Månsson also worked as director of photography. Characters are repeatedly cloaked in darkness, so much so that you can often almost only see the glimmering outlines of their face in close up. And when colours do make an appearance, they're deeply saturated, and burn with the reds, yellows and oranges of hell fire. As well, The Real Estate's otherworldly synth soundtrack (with music by the likes of Don Bennechi ‐ who makes numerous onscreen appearances for added strangeness too), frequently seems so potent that it's often as though it's at war with the images on the screen, giving the movie a further sense of hellish antagonism.
In short, this is one uncomfortable piece of filmmaking that shoots from the hip, but for humour and slick matching of style with substance, I have seen few films that deserved more praise for its daring originality so far. I hope these two directors will be smearing more greasy cinematic experiences across screens near me soon.