Wednesday 14 June 2023

Natten har øjne / Attachment

I think it is fitting that a film in which nothing is at it seems, a horror film, is for at least half of its run-time more accurately a very cute and moving romantic comedy. It even begins with a meet-cute for the ages: Josephine Park’s (the film would not work if Park's weren't so perfect in this role) Maja in an elf costume is making her way through a Danish library, too late for her Christmas story time with a group of kids. She bumps into Ellie Kendrick’s (great in Game of Thrones, but forever in my heart for Being Human) Leah, who doesn’t speak enough Danish to understand her profuse apologies. They mix up their books: Danish Christmas Stories and a book on Jewish art. As soon as they meet, their chemistry is palpable, and it leads to a mid-morning cup of tea at Maja’s apartment that extends to a glass of wine and never really ends. When it is meant to end – and even in these beginnings, Leah’s phone never stops ringing, as her mum calls her again and again without having her calls answered – Leah decides not to catch the early plane, and stay with Maja a bit longer. It feels like a magic spell, like it is fated somehow. The phone calls and Leah’s sleepwalking don’t detract from the feeling that they have immediately fallen into a serious relationship, and are both reluctant to see it end. Then Leah has what Maja and the viewer would assume is an epileptic episode in which she breaks her leg, and when she is about to leave for London, Maja makes the immediate spontaneous decision to go with her. 

There’s an obvious joke in there about u-hauling, but it is also an insight into Maja as a character. She doesn’t really have anything keeping her in Denmark – it feels like since the death of her mother and a short stint of fame as the star of a children’s television series, her life has been on hold, and meeting Leah has zapped her out of it. That kind of complete openness to a new life holds for a long time, even when she meets Leah’s mother Chana (the always great Sofie Gråbøl) and finds a woman that her own daughter describes as “weird” but we would probably, based on first impressions, call overbearing. She treats Maja like a prop, she coddles her daughter as if she were a much younger child and appears to respect no boundaries. Leah assumes that perhaps with her deep religiosity the weirdness is about the fact that her daughter has brought home a female partner to live with her, but as Leah’s uncle Lev (David Dencik) later says, she doesn’t dislike Maja, at least not for the reasons she thinks she would. And to Maja’s credit she meets the situation with endless patience and curiosity, and a genuine drive to figure out what is going on. The rituals of orthodox Jewish life are foreign to her, so she takes the first chance she gets to learn more (walking into a Jewish book store, incidentally owned by Leah’s uncle, and asking about a primer on “Jewish stuff”, a request that maybe rightfully gets her labelled as a “tourista goy”). She’s desperate to understand the artefacts in Leah’s apartment, the heaps of salt in the corner, the scroll stuffed into a hole in the wall, the reason why demons are mentioned repeatedly as something that desperately needs to be warded off. 

In the context of a romantic comedy, Maja comprehends her own situation as the partner of a woman whose mother has a different understanding of the world than she does. With her eagerness to be a good partner, to make a good impression on Chana, she is trying to understand that worldview. Leah’s uncle begins explaining about Jewish mysticism. Leah herself talks about her mother as the product of an unhappy marriage to a deeply religious man for whom she changed fundamentally, only to then be left by herself in a community that is still reluctant to accept her. But there are little things here and there that are harder to explain: the creaking floorboards in the night, the candle that relights after being extinguished. Soon Maja’s openness turns – she begins having suspicions that Chana is drugging her daughter and delaying her recovery from the broken leg, that the hostile presence she feels where they live is a mother who doesn’t want to let go of her child. To protect both Leah and herself, she creates a catastrophe, pretending that Chana has attempted to harm her by putting peanuts in her food that she is severely allergic to. She gets what she wants: Leah moves away into the woods with her, far away from Chana. 

This is the point when the film truly embraces horror. Distance only works if Maja’s explanation for what has been happening is sound, but she left the world that she understands when she arrived. Away from her mother and the wards she has put up in the apartment, Leah becomes increasingly unreachable, until it becomes impossible for Maja not to admit that something is wrong beyond what can be explained through a secular worldview. It tilts everything: all of a sudden, if she believes what she is told by the uncle, it becomes obvious that Chana’s actions were all taken to protect her daughter, who has been possessed by a demon since childhood. Away from that protection, the demon has been able to take over (and does so frightfully, due to Kendrick's performance). It’s a literal twist from a tale about possessiveness to one about possession, a journey from one genre into another, beautifully executed and eventually climaxing into a ritual that sees Chana bring the ultimate sacrifice to save her daughter. It’s a very eloquent ending for a film that, in one of its poignant moments, warns about the danger of losing yourself in someone else so completely that your old self is lost in the process. 

2022, Gabriel Bier Gislason, starring Josephine Park, Ellie Kendrick, Sofie Gråbøl, David Dencik. 

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