DIR/WRI: Ben Rivers, Ben Russell• PRO: Julie Gayet, Indrek Kasela, Nadia Turincev
A Spell to Ward off the Darkness is just about as experimental an effort as you’ll see getting a (very limited) commercial release this year. For that reason, it is not an easy film to describe, because much of its effectiveness – or, depending on your preferences, complete ineffectiveness – is obtuse and almost subconscious. If its rhythm hooks you you’re likely to be hypnotised by its elegantly ethereal mood, but there’s a good chance you’ll find yourself bored and irritated by its languishness. It’s just about as subjective as cinema-going gets, although given more than half of the viewers at the screening I attended abandoned ship well before the end credits, the odds may be stacked in one particular direction.
But as far as I’m concerned this is a film worth defending. Directors Ben Rivers and Ben Russell have abandoned most traditional forms of cinematic storytelling in favour of something much more poetic and primordial. It blurs the border between fiction and nonfiction to an inseparable degree. Emotions are not explicitly expressed, and instead emerge almost eerily through the images, editing and soundtrack. It is a film that, by its very nature, requires its defenders to summon up their most flowery and pretentious language to and describe a film experience that is defiantly indescribable. For many who fail to jump on board, a mere shrug of the shoulders will likely suffice.
A Spell… takes the form of a triptych of ‘stories’ (I use the term generously, given there is little in the way of traditional narrative), all of which are tied together by the presence of artist and musician Robert A.A. Lowe. In the first chapter, we observe the day-to-day activities of a group of people living in a commune in Estonia, as they ponder ways of living ‘liberated’ from mainstream society. In the second, Lowe’s nameless protagonist (himself?) explores a Finnish forest, sleeping alone in a small hut and living off the plants and animals he finds. The final section takes the form of a full half-hour death metal performance, shot in what appears to be a single, fluid take.
Following a lengthy and haunting opening panning shot of a lake (with a magnificently effective creeping choral soundtrack), the commune section is the most ‘traditional’ section of the film: in fact, it’s the only one with any actual speech. It is still, however, demandingly tranquil and meandering. The characters casually – and for quite a while completely nakedly – ponder their relationship with nature, society and each other, with the building a sort of ‘bio-pyramid’ happening in the background. There are some beautiful shots – including one remarkably expressive one of the group relaxing on the shore of a drowned town – but it’s the subsequent sections that prove truly sublime. The commune sequences are important, though, as they’re where the filmmakers most explicitly – i.e. very vaguely – hint at some of their thematic and artistic concerns before abandoning dialogue entirely.
When Lowe takes to the forest to live his solitary existence, the ethereal tone really starts to get under the skin. The dreamy and beguiling pacing becomes more poetic and tantalisingly ambiguous. The calm, observant camera and subdued sound design are hypnotic. Lowe says nothing, but he exhibits a curiosity and fascination with the landscape and his place in it, and that inquisitive nature is echoed through the meditative and observant cinematography. There’s a natural beauty here, but it’s contrasted in intriguing ways with Lowe’s own presence. One memorable shot of a dusky scene is contrasted with distant gunshots on the soundtrack – a straightforward but powerful evocation of the relationship between this one man and nature.
Then something bursts, or cracks. Lowe has a sort of primal realisation, which leads to an act of beautiful destruction. A stunning nighttime scene then vividly segues into the death metal performance. Lowe and his bandmates seemingly embrace and confront their inner darkness – and the darkness of the world around them – to conjure up something intensely creative.
The music will not suit all tastes, but the method of capturing this performance is remarkable. Rivers and Russell instill the camera movement with a spectral curiosity. It probes the scene, floating slowly. It drifts from one band member to the next, moving in for extreme close-ups and moving out for dynamic pans that intimately document both the emotions and (more fleetingly) the musical specifics of their performance. In the half-hour long take, the filmmakers also carefully documents the audience and their responses – some are enthralled, others observing more coldly.
It’s an astonishingly rich way to film music, and one that explores both the communal and individual aspects of live performance. This unashamedly inaccessible sequence will understandably prove one hurdle too many for some viewers, but for others it’ll represent A Spell to Ward off the Darkness achieving a rare level of cinematic transcendence – further emphasised by an incredible ending that gives a whole new meaning to fading to black. Count this viewer among the spellbound.
A Spell to Ward off the Darkness is released 12th September 2014