Toronto 2021 Review: AS IN HEAVEN, Where Childbirth Is Dark and Full of Terrors
The opening images of pastoral horror, As In Heaven, sees the almost stock imagery of a young beautiful thing, dressed in white, caressing the golden wheat with her fingertips, as she walks through a field of golden harvest. You know this shot - tracking at hip level, camera titled slightly upward to gather the sun - because it has been used in films as far ranging as Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven to Ridley Scott's Gladiator. Director Tea Lindeburg offers a sense of comfort and familiarity right before changing tone into a wholly original image, one that is arrestingly horrific: A thunderstorm of blood, off in the distance, and bearing down on innocence.
It is in the mid-1800s in Denmark, and God has great plans for Lise. She is bright and young, and on the cusp of womanhood, the oldest of many children that are destined to toil on the family farm. If not God, then at least her mother, Anne, desires her eldest, the smartest of her children, a different path that was the norm at the time, to attend school in the city.
Her husband is not happy about this, but is occupied with both the business side of managing the farm, as well as avoiding being around. Anne is pregnant with yet another child, which is overdue, giving rise to fear, or at least vivid dreams, that this labour will be a difficult one. The steely glances of the grandmothers in the house confirms this will be true. Weaker men flee.
The household juggles the affairs of the harvest, while making room for looming childbirth. The children, including Lise are left to play, and given the direction of moving into their cousins' adjacent property to be out of the way, under the care of Lise and her cousin Elsbet. Marcel Zyskind, a regular cinematographer for Michael Winterbottom (Code 46, A Mighty Heart), captures the unawareness, but not total ignorance as everyone is on top of each other in the farmhouse, of the younger children in soft 16mm (it dances!) with brownish earth tones and ivory fabrics.
There is a tactile attention to youth: bare feet on rocks, moths crawling along embroidered curtains in the sunlight, the fit of a blindfold in a game of tag. Lise fancies a blonde stable-boy, and their brushing down of one of the horses, hand in hand, is followed by a bit of horseplay. A visual shorthand that she is not a child any more, but also that adulthood remains a foreign country, below the horizon.
Things get figuratively, and literally, darker in rapid, unpredictable stretches, but never strays from Lise’s point of view, as the tasks at hand of the adult midwifes intensify. Night falls, and the wind picks up in the courtyard. A creeping sense of unknown leaves Lise stuck between the keeping the children calm, and confronting the fluid horrors of childbirth, of which she get glimpses of through a crack in the door or peering through a window.
The cinematic potency of As in Heaven is often discharged in t triple-distilled birth control to an audience that bears witness with Lise. To be clear, this is not the wisest choice for a 'first-date' movie, but it is a helluva debut feature from writer/director Tea Lindeburg.
The vibe of As In Heaven strikes a similarity to Michael Haneke's post-apocalyptic Time of The Wolf. Fears of both the future, and the immediate horrific unknown, bring out savage impulses, as well as a tendency to lean on the worst parts of religion, as a crutch against pragmatic action.
The Lord's Prayer factors heavily in the dialogue here, as the film asks many questions of how and why we pray. It brings us back to that opening image, of visions, of nightmares, and how they might guide us, but we must be wary about letting them rule us. Life often has other plans, regardless.