Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Thale (2012)

Elvis (Erlend Nervold) is helping out his friend Leo (Jon Sigve Skard) with a (legal) job cleaning the site of a death in a house out in the woods (proverbial and real). While Leo seems completely unflappable, Elvis isn’t really cut out for this particular part of the cleaning business - not just because of his propensity for vomiting when brushing away people parts but also because he’s rather nosy.

Consequently, it’s Elvis who stumbles upon the house’s hidden cellar, a place full of jury-rigged medical equipment and cassette tapes with ambiguous monologues of a male voice (Roland Astrand) which suggest there has been something at least very strange, if not highly untoward going on down there. However, the ambiance still doesn’t prepare the men for what they eventually find: a young naked woman (Silje Reinåmo) submerged in tub full of a milky fluid.

The woman seems to be mute, as well as rather confused and wild, and it’s a fair bet she has been going through some rather harsh things down in that cellar. Instead of calling an ambulance and the police, Leo and Elvis call their boss, who will certainly appear some time. So they wait with the girl, step by step realizing what happened in the cellar might not have been what they suspected had happened, and that the girl, let’s call her Thale, perhaps isn’t exactly human. However, the humanity of the young woman might not be their greatest problem (if it is a problem at all). Rather, opening the cellar door might have been a bad idea not because of what they find inside, but because of who might now find their way in.

Despite having read quite a bit about Aleksander Nordaas’s Thale before watching it, I found myself pleasantly surprised by parts of it. I wasn’t expecting this to be a fantasy film using Norwegian folklore around the hulder together with light horror influences, black humour, a light-handed sense of poetry and a believable feeling of compassion and respect for all things Other, rather than a more typical straight horror piece.

The film’s approach to the fantastic seems to be influenced by “hard fantasy” concepts, that is, establishing something magical (at least one of the things Thale does can hardly be explained otherwise), and then thinking its implications through with logic and coherence. At its worst, this approach can suck all the magic out of the supernatural, but when it is used with care and a sense of poetry like it is here, it gives a film the opportunity to ground the fantastic without destroying it. Of course, the implications of Thale’s existence the film suggest are not very original, seeing as they concern the human propensity to destroy and use everything that’s beautiful and/or different and potentially useful. But then, humanity at large hasn’t exactly shown itself very original on this point either.

Thale doesn’t treat this aspect with unremitting bleakness, though, and instead demonstrates a belief in the possibility of kindness, redemption and love; not through grand gestures – in fact, the film avoids showing one particular moment a comparable Hollywood production would have milked for ten tear-jerking minutes completely – that can turn humanism to kitsch so easily, but with a laconic matter-of-factness that works curiously well with the film’s sense of wonder. It’s always pleasant to find a film that acknowledges humanity’s darkest impulses without ending up in nihilism or cynicism.

That Nordaas achieves all this with only a handful of locations and actors and what I can only assume must have been a pretty low budget is a particular delight, as well as a demonstration that there’s still room for ambitious yet small movies hiding surprising complexities under their simplicity of means. Sure, if I’d be out to nitpick, I could criticize the few CGI effects as cheap-looking and not convincing in their physicality but with the Thale I’ve seen, that’s just not a point I care enough about to turn it into an actual problem.

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