AVAILABLE ON DVD: NOW, from MATCHBOX FILMS
RUNNING TIME: 98 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Cello student Jessi moves into a flat in Berlin with her boyfriend Lorenz, courtesy of a loan from her undermining father. The phone rings and it’s great news: she’s been allowed to represent her country in a prestigious international classical music competition. She begins to train for the contest, but finds herself increasingly exposed to anonymous harrassments. She thinks they’re originating from elderly upstairs neighbour Frau Domweber, but why would she do this, and could the pressurised woman be just imagining it all?
I doubt that I’m the only one of us on HCF who never has time to review all the films they want to. We get a great many screeners to watch and review these days, and it’s great, but whenever I browse my stupidly large DVD and Blu-ray collection my eyes always alight on something and I say to myself: “God, I really want to review that”. The other day it was Roman Polanski’s frightening tale of paranoia and madness The Tenant, and I reminded myself of the fact that HCF doesn’t have nearly enough Polanski represented, and how in particular I’d love to do what has become known as his ‘Apartment trilogy’, comprising of Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant. Well, one day I may get around to those, but for the time being we have Homesick, which is very much inspired by the three films I’ve just mentioned, sometimes to the point of riffing on specific scenes. One of the things that prevents it from coming across as a rehash is that it also plays on a certain feeling that we’ve probably all had at times. The feeling that somebody doesn’t like you. It could be the way they look at you. It could be the way they speak to you. It could be the way they carry themselves around you. It could be nothing in particular, yet you still feel that this person has a problem with you – and could even be out to get you – even if you have no evidence that they’ve done anything wrong. The idea has worked well a few times on film, as has the premise of neighbours from hell [why is it I was so reminded of The Burbs whilst watching this movie?], and works well again here.
Homesick is very much a slow builder of a film, so if you’re in the mood for lots of thrills and shocks than you’d probably better give something else a go. It never gets quite as creepy and unsettling as it probably ought to, and some of this could be the way the film is shot. Writer/director Jacob M. Erwa made the decision to shoot it almost entirely in stationery shots and use sharp cuts to get us to places, so the camera never actually movies except in four or five moments which stick out somewhat, though not exactly in a bad way. Now I’m all for films to be shot in an unusual way, and there are moments when the device employed here works well for this one, but I felt that it rather hampered the atmosphere that Erwa was trying to create. We don’t get much of a sense of the environment that our heroine inhabits – in fact my knowledge of the geography of the place was scarcely better at the end of the film than it was at the beginning – and too often we’re just staring at walls. Obviously Erwa deliberately opted to do this for a reason, and as I said it does aid some moments, like an early bit where our couple are ‘getting it on’ but the camera is stationery at the far end of the hall so that we can only glimpse a tiny bit of what they’re up to through the doorway of their bedroom. The moment nicely plays on the viewer’s voyeuristic desire to see them having sex. But in general, to my eyes this was a stylistic choice that just didn’t work very well for this particular film.
A really unpleasant scraping sound [which is later revealed to be Jessi cleaning her cello] followed by the camera following [yes, it’s moving here but won’t do it again for another half an hour or so!] Jessi as she walks, clearly in some state of stress, along a path and then over a bridge, immediately grabs the attention. “Okay, now it’s quiet. We have peace at home again” she says to someone on the phone. Cut to a empty, unfurnished white apartment, into which come Jessi, Lorenz and two friends carrying stuff. You’d better get used to the way this scene is staged – the camera totally still and sometimes looking at nothing in particular until somebody comes in and/or walks past- because a great majority of the rest of the film does the same thing. Soon after, Jessi is over the moon because she’s beaten lots of others to represent Germany in a music competition – though only for a while. Even before strange stuff begins to occur, her father puts her down at dinner, something we think may happen frequently. And then she’s bothered by the fact that elderly neighbour Frau Domweber, who has already complained to them about playing music loudly, can see directly into their apartment and makes the most of this. Some poo appears outside their door, but nobody in the block seems to have a pet. At least Jessi is able to take a photograph of this as proof, but other things like tapping noises, buzzed doorbells and a missing pet – well, could they be just taking place inside her head, the stress of the impending competition perhaps proving to be too much?
I could have done with a bit more set-up here, more reasons for Jessi to be so vulnerable and weak and the sort of person who could begin to imagine things. But Erwa has the skill and the courage to keep things ambiguous when most other filmmakers would have been unable to resist going into full-on nightmare mode. I can imagine some viewers getting a bit restless, waiting for the really weird, scary stuff to take place, but, while I didn’t feel nearly as on edge as I hoped that I would do, I did often enjoy the fact that we really don’t know what is real and what isn’t half the time, something helped by the refusal to overly stylised things [well, aside from the cinematographic style]. And we’re sometimes asked to feel sorry for this old couple who could actually be completely harmless. Poor Lorenz constantly seems such a nice, patient sort that we occasionally feel sorry for him. The final 25 minutes are extremely uncomfortable, yet Erwa still refuses to go over the top and instead depicts the really rather logical events in a coldly realistic way. Somehow the odd method of filming does work during some scenes of violence where we don’t see everything but want to. By now we know exactly the nature of what’s happening – or do we? I personally could have done without a twist in the last few seconds. I feel that the film would have been more disturbing without it. But that could be just me.
Erwa sometimes overdoes the use of loud sound effects, it maybe jarring for the very restrained manner in which the film is mostly handled. Visually the film is dominated by white. The colour is even talked about as it seems to take over Jessica’s life so much so that nearly everything around her and that she uses is white. It’s an unusual choice of colour to do this with but just about comes off – I think. A few visits to a teacher occasionally take us out of the sterile apartment. He’s convinced that Jessica can win this competition if she plays with more feeling. Esther Maria Pietsch has the perfect look for somebody like Jessica: with no disrespect to the actress, she has a rather troubled and even haunted look without it dominating. Pietsch’s acting evokes Jessi’s fragility very well and also achieves the difficult task of making her both sympathetic and just a little bit creepy. She still doesn’t come close to the likes of Catherine Deneuve and Natalie Portman in similar parts, but then they had much more to work with in terms of the characters they were playing.
If you’ve seen a lot of films of this ilk, than Homesick won’t offer many surprises until maybe its final act [well, I was a bit surprised], but one can’t help but respect it for not going down the shock heavy route and remaining bravely restrained. It doesn’t quite contain enough to really distinguish itself, but if you’re game than it should still be an interesting and actually rather troubling watch. And if you haven’t seen any of those cracking Polanski films I mentioned at the beginning of this review, then watch Homesick as a very good appetiser – then delve into the others and be really rewarded.