French filmmaker Eric Atlan’s black-and-white Mortem has been billed as a “metaphysical thriller” inspired by David Lynch and Ingmar Bergman. The more obvious comparison, however, would have been to French film noir. Mortem’s opening scenes, in which two young women arrive by nightfall at an empty hotel, bring to mind Georges Franju’s haunted Eyes Without a Face, based on Jean Redon’s novel that also inspired Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In. In all three movies, bizarre experimentation, psychic or physical, and plot reversals ensue.
Like Franju, Atlan relies on a rousing musical score to build suspense. In the case of Mortem, however, he has little to go on, plot-wise. Jena (Panchenko Daria), the waifish blonde, accompanied by a curvaceous, heavily made-up brunette, finds herself locked in a hotel room with her companion. The setup is Sartrean—so much it appears to parody No Exit. As Jena grapples with the room’s bizarre acoustics, which cause her to hear voices, her lover, Aken (Stany Coppet), suddenly appears. His entrance completes Sartre’s doomed trio: The brunette pines for Jena who pines for Aken. From here, the story gets convoluted, however, and simultaneously reductive. Aken can’t see or hear Jena’s chaperon, who claims to be her soul, and who excoriates her for giving in to fickle Aken. After a failed escape attempt, Jena realizes that she and Aken have suffered a car accident, and are imprisoned in their own bodies. The hotel becomes a metaphor—a kind of clearing-house for souls. What isn’t evident, however, is how the erotic scenes between Jena and her bitter, cynical psyche advance the story. Why is it necessary for Jena’s soul to seduce her, as the two struggle for dominance?
The film culminates in the two women drawing cards, to see which of Jena’s incarnations—her carnal body or her eternal soul—prevails. The scene evokes the famous chess game in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, but by now any real tensions have dissipated. This is partly because the characters have been too heavily abstracted. For all the externalization of Jena’s thoughts, we never fully engage with her. If character is action, Jena’s mental paralysis may be part of the problem. We can’t hope to understand her double either, since she’s a force, or a symbol, rather than a person. Jana and Akan’s story is almost entirely dispensed with; we learn nothing about the circumstances that led to their traveling together, as Jena was presumably driving home to her husband, delayed by the fog. We’re similarly at a loss trying to uncover what is at stake in the Jena-double standoff. Is Jena being given a chance to reclaim her personhood, and break the cycle of emotional dependence, which she ultimately refuses? What’s the essence of her paranormal victory, if any? We’re offered some hints, but the filmmaker veers too quickly to ponderous musings on desire and eternity, to explore these basic themes.
It could be argued that Mortem harks back to the classics of French nouveau roman—writers such as Alain Robbe-Grillet, whose novel Last Year at Marienbad became the basis for a famously impenetrable film by Alain Resnais, championed by Susan Sontag. But unlike the French masters of new objectivity, or filmmakers such as Lynch, Bergman, or Robert Altman, whose inventive cinematography engaged psychoanalytic readings of the mind, Mortem merely recycles the other filmmakers’ visual tropes. And whereas his predecessors skillfully deployed ambiguity, Atlan spells out his subtext, leaving nothing to the imagination. Instead of Lynchian oneiric labyrinths, Bergmanesque psychic mirroring in Persona and historical allegory in The Seventh Seal, or Altman’s seamless, disorienting meshing of fantasy and reality in Images, we get a literal rendition of a soul as a manic, coquettish female.
Watching Mortem, I was reminded that the noir genre is a rich depository of minor pleasures. Eyes Without a Face, in spite of its Frankenstein theme of a plastic surgeon cum murderer who harvests human skin for his fatally burned child, is nevertheless an assuredly told moral fable, whose chilling finale reverses the predator-victim conceit. In another noir, Giuseppe Tornatore’s A Pure Formality, starring Gérard Depardieu and Roman Polanski, the story’s suspense and denouement hinge on the protagonist’s acceptance of his own death, the revelation of which is withheld till the end, rewarding the audience with a small epiphany.
Such minor rewards are unfortunately denied us in Mortem, which too readily abandons its noir framework for the sweeping meta-narrative about desire’s link to thanatos, and in so doing, leaves too little room for guesswork.
Film Comment Selects 2012 runs from February 17—March 1.