Wednesday, May 2, 2018

I Remember You (2017)

Warning: there will inevitably be spoilers, and one might want to go into this utterly brilliant film blind.

Original title: Ég man þig

Some years ago, psychiatrist Freyr’s (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson) little son simply disappeared without a trace. Apparently, the country having a rather low population, children don’t vanish into thin air in Iceland as regularly as they do elsewhere, so the whole affair was a big media sensation at the time. Even now, after years have passed and Freyr has moved to another town, every stranger he meets seems to know all about the case, something that certainly isn’t helping Freyr, or his divorced wife, for that matter, to move on.

Freshly installed in his new home, Freyr is asked by the police to help with their inquiries into a suicide as medical examiner. An elderly woman hanged herself in a church, but her back shows old and new cross-shaped scars that simply can’t have been self-inflicted. Things become even more concerning once they check the woman’s apartment. Apparently, she was obsessed with the disappearance of Freyr’s son, as demonstrated by that eternal classic, the wall of newspaper clips. Further investigations by Freyr and policewoman Dagný (Sara Dögg Ásgeirsdóttir) turn up ever stranger things. As it seems, there have been quite a few people of the woman’s age been dying in accidents, all of them carrying these cross-shaped scars on their backs. The connection between them not only leads the investigators into a dark past but regularly touches on the disappearance of Freyr’s son. The increasingly distressed man starts to see visions or the ghost of a little boy that might be his son or somebody else connected to the case.

Freyr’s plot line is regularly intercut with the film’s second central line of narrative. After having lost a child and gone through the incredible strain this puts on a marriage, Katrín (Anna Gunndís Guðmundsdóttir), her husband Garðar (Thor Kristjansson) and their friend Líf (Ágústa Eva Erlendsdóttir) have decided to change their life by moving to an old house in an abandoned town in the middle of nowhere, a place with a population of zero, no cell reception and no connection to the outside world apart from a boat that may or may not come in some day or week, probably. The plan is to make some basic repairs to the house and rough it for a few months before they can really fix the place up. Unfortunately, while there isn’t anyone living there, the place does have an inhabitant, the ghost of a child that increasingly haunts the trio. Apart from this buried past, there are also dark secrets between the three of them; and of course there too is a connection between this part of the film and Freyr’s, if perhaps not exactly the one you’d expect.

Óskar Thór Axelsson’s I Remember You is straight out of the gate one of my favourite ghost movies of the past decade or so, pushing all the right buttons for my personal tastes in this sub-genre, so I’m not going to pretend to have even the tiny degree of distance from the film I usually have.

Firstly, I just love how well it mixes its tale of ghostly horror with that of the Nordic Crime genre (Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, the author of the book this is based on, does mostly write in that genre). It makes a lot of sense, too, for both genres have a deep interest in using pretty unpleasant happenings in the present to speak of the pressures of the past, of the things people – or a society - do not want to think or speak of but which made them what they are, for better or (mostly) worse. Both are genres about hauntings, the biggest difference being that the ghosts in a good ghost story are real as well as metaphorical.

So there are quite obvious places where these genres intersect, but Axelsson’s film also finds other common ground. Both genres speak a lot about loss, and what loss does to people, past and present very often mirroring one another in catastrophic ways. In I Remember You, this mirroring happens in various ways again and again, tragedies begetting tragedies, the undead past moulding the present into becoming its mirror. The film will also explore this through a formal trick that could have gone badly awry in a lesser picture, but which here, thanks to a complex script and Axelsson’s deeply atmospheric and intelligent, compassionate direction, feels deserved, logical, and totally in tune with the philosophical points the film is making about the connection between present and past, and human suffering in both.

On a more obvious level, we have two child ghosts who mirror one another, we have two tales of the loss of a child that connect in terrible ways, but inside these tales, there are further reflections of the past in the present, like the way Katrín’s final destiny mirrors that of the ghost that helped push her into it. On the other hand, the film never goes so far with this as to turn its present characters into abstractions that only act out the past. These are rounded human beings carrying terrible inner wounds, and while what’s happening to them feels all too fitting, destined even, it also is a product of decisions and chance. Unless one wants to be metaphysical and suggest a malevolent universe.

What really, utterly turns my respect for the intelligence of I Remember You into actual excitement, though, is how well the film turns its ideas into a narrative, how deftly and complex it draws characters it could very well have left as mere functions of its plot, how well its crime story works as a pure crime story, and how well its ghost story as a ghost story. And not the Conjuring kind of ghost story with jump scare following jump scare but the style based on breathing an increasing mood of dread that is caused by terrible hints more than by outright telling. Though, it has to be said, in the climactic moments when the film does show, it shows very effectively.

On a technical level, there is no fault with the film, either – acting, direction, music, and so on and so forth – just fit one another, telling this tale in exactly the way it needs to be told.

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