Tuesday, June 26, 2012

‘Sound Of My Voice’ (2012) directed by Zal Batmanglij, 26th June 2012

‘Sound Of My Voice’ is a modest, smart little film about the dangers of faith and the nature of belief.  It centres around a cult led by a woman who claims to have travelled back in time from the year 2054 in order to save a group of ‘chosen ones’ from danger.  Our protagonists are documentary film-makers who set out to expose her as a fraud, but become more involved than they’d originally planned.  The film is co-written by director Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling, who stars in the film with Christopher Denholm and Nicole Vicius.

It’s a lean film, clocking in at only 85 minutes, but it possesses an admirable confidence in its premise.  The ‘time travel’ genre is riddled with clichés and plot holes, and it’s a credit to the film that it largely avoids these.  It does this not through some rigorous application of logic (as in the incredibly complex ‘Primer), rather, the film chooses not to dwell on the hows and whys and tends to treat events poetically rather than mechanically.  As Maggie tells it, she just woke up in a motel bathtub one day and stumbled around until someone realised she was from the future. 

Our viewpoints into this strange cult are Peter (Christopher Denholm) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius), two documentary film-makers.  Peter is motivated by the death of his mother from cancer, she was in a cult and refused any medical treatment.  Lorna is Peter’s girlfriend, an ex-model and party girl who’s cleaned up her life and is trying to do something of worth.  They’re a good pair, and as audience substitutes express just the right amount of incredulity at the cult’s strange behaviour.   During the cult meetings, they’re ‘undercover’, which adds quite a bit of tension to these scenes.  The audience is in a conspiracy with the characters during these scenes, and the actors do a great job in expressive but subtle non-verbal communication.   They manage to say an awful lot with the occasional glance to the other, with a flick of their eyes, or with a suppressed smile.

Christopher Denham as ‘Peter’ has the largest emotional arc in the film, and has the most at stake personally.  It’s apparent to us pretty early on that his documentary is a revenge on the type of system he hold responsible for killing his mother.  He’s a rational character, though somewhat self-centred and begins the film with absolute surety that he’s doing the right thing.  Denham is very good at showing this self-assuredness, and how it begins to crumble as the film progresses.  In an examination of the nature of faith and belief it’s quite refreshing to have our skeptical protagonist be eminently relatable and even when things get a bit weirder than he anticipates, he never completely loses his sense of self awareness.  With such a nice bit of efficient characterisation, it’s a pity that Nicole Vicius’ ‘Lorna’ doesn’t get quite as much development.  Her background as an ex-‘party girl’  seems to put her in the position of someone who would be susceptible to being given purpose by a cult, but the film never really explores this in enough detail.  She is shown as getting into the spirit of things a lot more than Peter though, and has a great, tense scene in the woods with a ‘true believer’ cult member.   In a tightly focused film like this, and without an overt motivation, she tends be used as a sounding board for Peter’s ideas and thoughts, only really gaining agency in the final act.

Brit Marling, as ‘Maggie’, the woman who claims to be from the future, is the magnetic lynchpin of the film around which everything else revolves.  The film doesn’t waste time - it is not long before we meet Maggie, who’s on screen within the first 10 minutes or so.  Even so, her introduction instils in the audience precisely the kind of religious awe that she inspires in her on-screen followers.  We understand pretty quickly why they believe her farfetched story of being sent from the future.  Her pure white robes, controlled body language and long wavy hair make us view her as holy and angelic.  But it’s explicitly calculated religious iconography, within the context of the film it is shown to be designed to make us and her onscreen followers react to her with reverence.  This illusion is consciously stripped back at various points, and we see her more as a relatable person rather than as a messiah.

The question that we puzzle over throughout the film is whether she is telling the truth?  Is she consciously manipulating her followers?  Is she mentally ill and being manipulated herself ? Could she genuinely be from the future?  As usual, pondering the question is far more interesting than knowing the answer, and we’re teased back and forth, sometimes being lead one way, and sometimes another.  As such, our (and our protagonist's) perception of the character swings from awe to suspicion and back again throughout the narrative.  It’s always clear though, that whether she is from the future or not, that there is something special about her.

There are two scenes which stand out as exemplary bits of acting from Marling.  The first is where she breaks down Peter’s emotional barriers and gives him what is later described as ‘an emotional orgasm’.  Marling’s characterisation of Maggie is so strong by this point in the film that we already accept that susceptible people would follow her, but this scene proves that she has ‘something else’ that allows her to see through people’s lies and into their past.  The character of Maggie is consistently tactile, touching and rubbing people, trying to get them to be what she considers honest with themselves.  In this scene she asks questions about Peter’s past, probing him both physically and mentally, trying to get him to admit that he’s emotionally “lame”.  While this is seen as ostensibly therapeutic by the rest of the cult members, we see in close up Maggie’s subtle and sadistic predatory glee.  Breaking someone down into a sobbing, vomiting mess  obviously counts as a ‘win’ for her, but even so this still supports both readings of the character.  If you’re working on the basis that she is from the future and wants to help her followers, then the emotional breakdown she induces must be for the good of Peter.  If you’re assuming that she’s a con artist, then this scene is an exhibition of her talent for turning sceptical resistance into malleability.

Peter (Christopher Denholm) and Maggie (Brit Marling)
The second scene I’d like to highlight reverses the roles.  Again the scene takes place with Maggie holding court among her followers, but this time she is the one being interrogated by them.  She describes music in the post apocalyptic future as not being recorded, being passed around vocally, with people teaching each other songs in a vocal tradition.  Quite reasonably, her curious followers ask her to sing them a song from the future.  Suddenly the spotlight is on her, and it’s fascinating to watch her squirm.  She lamely claims that she doesn’t sing, but it’s quickly clear that this isn’t going to be good enough.  Asking her disciples to close their eyes, the camera unblinkingly focuses on her face.  She looks nervous, cornered, and extremely suspicious.  Nervously she starts singing, first tentatively, then more confidently.  It’s a good song and for a moment she looks relieved like she’s managed to dodge a bullet.  Then one of her followers points out that she just sang ‘Dreams’ by the Cranberries.  “But, that was a song from the 90s, like, the 1990s”.  Immediately she makes a lame excuse that someone called “Bennett” made it famous in the future.  It’s a wonderful bit of acting as she’s cornered, thinks she’s escaped, but then is seemingly found out.  When she was stalling, was she trying to think of a song obscure enough that not many people would automatically recognise it?  Or was she actually trying to think of a song from the future?

It’s interesting that even among the audience there are two ways to view this scene.  I knew the song sounded familiar, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.  Before it was revealed as a Cranberries song my view of the scene was that the character had miraculously plucked a great song from nowhere.  “Hey, this is good – maybe she is from the future.”  Meanwhile, the friend who accompanied me to the cinema immediately recognised the song and straightaway concluded that the character must be a fraud. Throughout the film Marling’s performance swings subtly between her being a villain or a saviour, and her actions can be interpreted as either. Without the audience being able to interpret her performance in two ways the film would fall flat on its face.  It’s impressive to say the least.

Magnetic and creepy.
The film is minimalist in both structure and in its production design.  Most of the cult action takes place in a calm, empty cream room with very little distractions and with the exception of the finale there is no  obvious location filming.  But, as I said, this is a modest film that recognises its limitations and plays to its strengths.  The script is intelligent, fairly pacy (although it does slightly drag before the conclusion) and does the smart thing of giving us just enough information to come to our own conclusions as to what’s going on.  It’s difficult to pigeonhole this film into a genre, on one hand the time travel elements seem to peg it as science fiction, but the film goes out of its way never to explore the mechanics or rules of its time travel, so it strays into the realm of magic realism.  So if you’re the kind of viewer that wants everything tied up neatly and explained, then this film is likely to frustrate you with its opacity.  

Fairly uniquely, the ‘chapter’ numbers pop up throughout the film as intertitles.  It’s an interestingly overt structural device, one which constantly reminds us that we’re watching a fiction. The use of this device demonstrates that whilst the director and writers are concerned with philosophical issues, they also recognise the importance of the narrative.  The film is occasionally a little too coy plotwise, and we are generally invited to deduce connections rather than rely on direct exposition.  In one sense this means the film is ultimately slightly frustrating - the final scenes definitely raise more questions than they answer.  In fact, the events of the film could easily be condensed into the first act of another, more epic and action-packed film.   Having said that, the climax is undeniably powerful and is only improved by the ambiguity surrounding it.

Batmanglij is admirably focused for a first time director.  He recognises the limitations of his budget he’s got to work with and doesn’t over-reach, but at the same time it’s clear that he knows how to accentuate what does work, namely three great central performances (one of them outstanding) and a smart, well-paced, literate script.  I hope he doesn’t abandon his restraint when he’s given a bigger budget, as he’s proved here that less can very often be much much more.

'Sound Of My Voice' is on general release from 3rd August 2012

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