Having failed to persuade mother Yuliya Aug to give him a note to get out of swimming that doesn't allude to involuntary erections, teenager Pyotr Skvortsov spends the lesson perusing the Bible and disapproving of the skimpy bikini being worn by classmate Aleksandra Revenko. As he walks beside the pool, however, Skvortsov decides to jump in fully clothed and Aug is furious with gym master Anton Vasilev and biology teacher Viktoriya Isakova for not controlling her son when she has enough to worry about in holding down three jobs. Principal Svetlana Bragarnik is intrigued by Skvortsov's contention that girls should wear more modest costumes and not only changes the uniform code, but also advises Isakova to dress a little more modestly to set a good example.
Heeding the warning, Isakova leaves the popular sunbathing spot by the sea when some students see her reclining with Vasilev. She is convinced that Skvortsov is trying to get his own back for some sort of slight, but he seems deadly intent as he promises disabled class geek Aleksandr Gorchilin that he will avenge his bullying and returns home to remove all the furniture from his room (as well as the floral wallpaper) so that he can live in ascetic simplicity. Aug is appalled by the mess he has made, but he admonishes her for placing her soul in jeopardy by divorcing his father (even though he was a brute), as Scripture promises eternal damnation for those who treat marriage lightly.
Angry at being judged, Aug goes to see Orthodox priest Nikolai Roshchin, who teaches religion at the school. She insists Skvortsov has no faith and has simply found a way in which he can cause disruption and annoy her. But she refuses to wash her hands of him and wishes to find a way of returning him to normal. Roshchin suggests that the Lord moves in mysterious ways and encourages Aug to pray. However, she is not convinced by the blessing she receives from kissing his hand and stalks off to work.
Meanwhile, Skvortsov is feeling pleased with himself because the girls are now wearing one-piece swimsuits. But his success merely makes him bolder and he undresses when Isakova hands out carrots and condoms to teach the class about safe sex. Spouting verses about the evils of fornication and homosexuality, Skvortsov struts around the room, while his classmates ask Isakova impertinent questions and use the condoms as balloons. Unfortunately, however, Bragarnik and assistant Irina Rudniktskaya walk in and are appalled by the sight of a student prancing around naked and Isakova doing nothing about it. Bragarnik cautions Isakova about her progressive methods and orders her to stick to heterosexual topics, as anything else is unnatural. When Isakova protests that ignorance can lead to disease and pregnancy, Bragarnik (who has just spotted a video of horses copulating on the screen beside the blackboard) suggests she finds more traditional ways of keeping the children out of trouble.
On a roll, Skvortsov wanders into the gym, where Roshchin is conducting a service. He tells Skvortsov that the Orthodox Church needs people with his passion. But Skvortsov mocks Roshchin for not knowing that God prefers private prayer to public acts of worship and denounces Christianity for losing the crusading zeal that has given Islam the edge in Chechnya and Afghanistan. He boasts that he would be ready to die for his faith and wonders why Roshchin has such a hypocritical needs a grand church and a golden cross when the Bible makes it plain how he should behave.
Skvortsov invites Gorchilin to supper and browbears Aug when she complains for not giving her enough notice. He cites the Feeding of the Five Thousand when she explains she has a limited amount of food, but loses his temper when Gorchilin tries to apologise for being a nuisance while saying grace. When Skvortsov leaves the table in a fury, Gorchilin follows and is reduced to tears when his host sets upon him and declares that he will spend eternity in hell unless he accepts God's mercy and appeals for faith and healing.
At school, the next day, Revenko bumps into Skvortsov and begins to flirt with him. She suggests he stripped off in biology to show her his package and kisses him to let him know she is available. But he chastises her for trying to lead him astray and he later annoys Rudniktskaya when he condemns industrialisation for ignoring God's words about the birds of the air. However, she shouts him down and continues preaching the values of Communism to a class with no interest in outdated and demonised ideals.
Feeling more empowered, Skvortsov offers to cure Gorchilin by making his shorter right leg grow. He removes his trousers and lies him down on the mattress in his room and begins exhorting God to intercede so that Gorchilin can be accepted as an equal by his peers rather than despised. But, when nothing happens, he accuses Gorchilin of having insufficient faith and frowns when he tries to embrace him for trying to help.
The following day, Skvortsov dresses in a gorilla suit to reduce Isakova's lesson on evolution to chaos. When Bragarnik arrives, Skvortsov's is ranting about God creating the universe in six days. So, she asks whether it would be possible to teach creationism alongside Darwin and, when Isakova, objects, Bragarnik avers that ignorance about what existed before the Big Bang implies that science can not entirely be trusted and that Isakova should consult with Roshchin about finding ways of incorporating Genesis in her teaching. When Isakova protests, Bragarnik accuses her of being arrogant and reminds her who is in charge (before going off to get drunk with Rudniktskaya, who wears the gorilla mask, and Marina Kleschev, who sings a mournful ballad about a woman's hopes and dreams).
As the light fades, Skvortsov informs Gorchilin that Isakova hates him because she is Jewish. He suggests that his mission could be accomplished more easily if she was eliminated and convinces Gorchilin that Isakova is forever making sly remarks about his disability. But, as he plots to sabotage the brakes on her moped, Isakova receives another shock to her system when Vasilev packs a bag, gathers his dumbbells and moves out because she is spending so much time reading the Bible to find flaws in and ripostes to Skvortsov's endless quotations that she has become so like a doctor snorting coke to test it that she has become a religion junkie. Isakova wants to protest, but merely flips him the finger as she bursts into tears surrounded by post-its stick to the wall.
Waking in the night, Skvortsov finds a large crucifix in the lounge and prays for the strength to hurt people without terrifying himself. In school the next day, however, he is humiliated when Revenko walks in on him trying to cure Gorchilin's leg again and she films him with his pants down on her phone. She derides Skvortsov for making up the religious nonsense to hide the fact he is gay and hits him repeatedly with her bag in a self-pitying tantrum that prompts him to build his own cross and carry it through the town to the thundering accompaniment of `God Is God' by the Slovenian industrial metal band, Laibach. Isakova is not impressed when he nails it to the hall wall and counters his anti-Semitic insults by reminding him that the Bible has nothing but good things to say about the Jews and he raves that she is a liar who has to be silenced.
As they drink by the seashore, Gorchilin describes how Isakova would be hit by a car if he tampered with her brakes. But he misinterprets Skvortsov calling him his favourite disciple and is knocked cold with a rock after he tries to kiss him. Nothing is mentioned about this incident when Skvortsov is summoned to a staff meeting. Once again, Aug accuses the teachers of having failed in their duty to act in loco parentis. But the focus turns on Isakova when she brings up Skvortsov's anti-Semitic comments and Bragarnik, Rudniktskaya and Vasilev all urge her to stop over-reacting. Roshchin tries to calm them down by reading from St John of Kronstadt in suggesting that Skvortsov might be excused his grades slipping because he has found God and is no longer prepared to hide his light under a bushel.
Recognising that the room is turning against Isakova, Skvortsov whispers to Aug that she had sexually assaulted him on several occasions and Isakova is aghast when Vasilev pipes up that this would explain why she was no longer interested in sleeping with him. Roshchin demands an explanation and Isakova throws up her hands in despair because they have all been infected with Skvortsov's poison. Scarcely able to contain her incredulity, she proclaims Christianity to be a totalitarian dictatorship that no rational person should take seriously.
No longer able to restrain herself, Isakova slaps Skvortsov and, when she quotes the Bible about not sparing the rod in disciplining children, he screams at her that she is twisting holy words and Bragarnik sacks her on the spot. As she leaves the staffroom, Rudniktskaya informs Vasilev that Gorchilin has been found dead. Isakova sees his ghost on the staircase and he pleads with her not to let Skvortsov triumph over them. So, she storms back upstairs, takes the hammer Skvortsov used on his crucifix and nails her shoes to the wooden hall floor and vouches that she belongs in the school and will never leave.
As much renowned for his theatre work as his films, Serebrennikov has had little exposure in this country outside the festival circuit. Often adopting a bleakly comic approach, he has exposed the bleaker aspects of Russian society in features like Bed Stories (2005), Playing the Victim (2006), Yuri's Day (2008) and Betrayal (2012), a treatise on unrealisable fantasies and the psychological ramifications of adultery that turns on cardiologist Franziska Petri revealing to patient Dejan Lilic that wife Albina Dzhanabayeva is having an affair with her husband, Andrei Shchetinin. Nothing is quite as it seems, however, as Petri gives Lilic a guided tour of the places where he has been cuckolded and, as the wider world seems to suffers as a result of their anguish, the strangers appear to drift into a liaison of their own.
Serebrennikov described this simmering drama as `a disaster movie' and the same epithet could be applied to The Student, as the protagonist also plays mind games with friends and foe alike in an egotistical bid to wrest control and power. Dotting the screen with chapter and verse citations as Pyotr Skvortsov twists Scripture to suit his own ends, Serebrennikov shows how observation and opinion can be moulded into plausible assertions that are likely to become dauntingly dangerous when declaimed with sufficient conviction to dupe the ignorant and the gullible into believing that they are true.
Leaving the audience to speculate about the precise reasons why Skvortsov should suddenly become a walking Bible, Serebrennikov avoids delving too deeply into the contradictions contained in much religious doctrine and the ways in which ancient aphorisms can be distorted to pertain to modern life. Instead, he concentrates on the drawbacks of free speech and the way in which Skvortsov imposes his views on those around him. Shooting in long takes that allow Vladislav Opelyants's camera to linger on perplexed faces and the myriad telling details in Ekaterina Scheglova's production design, he also reveals how easily the voice of reason can be drowned in the resulting self-righteous clamour. The last year has been replete with examples of such post-truth triumphs and most viewers will be able to relate to Isakova's sense of frustration as Skvortsov exploits his reputation for piety to veneer his lies and undermine her ideals and status.
Coming across like a teenage Rasputin, Skvortsov is admirably malevolent as the scheming fanatic out to conquer the intellectual and the impressionable and he is ably abetted by the confusably needy Gorchilin, the priggishly malleable Bragarnik and the pitiably hapless Aug. But the most intriguing character is Isakova, whose resistible smugness makes it hard to empathise with her, even though she has right on her side. Her depiction might have opened up a profitable discussion on the role of women in the Russian hierarchy, especially as Vasilev and Roshchin are so emasculatedly ineffectual. However, her final gesture of defiance feels a little anti-climactic after so many audaciously provocative, if not always subtle set-pieces.
Despite the dogged efforts of director Rachel Tunnard to make her debut as distinctive as possible, Adult Life Skills doesn't quite work. The acclaimed editor of films like Nick Whitfield's Skeletons (2010) and Scott Graham's Shell (2012) has expanded her BAFTA-nominated 2014 short, Emotional Fusebox. There's no doubting the quality of the performances or the efficacy of Beck Rainford's genially cluttered production design and Bet Rourich's affectionate depiction of the bleak beauty of the misty, sodden landscape. But the screenplay is sometimes a touch too left-field for its own good, while the soulful ditties composed by Americana singer Micah P. Hinson are wholly out of place in a picture that clearly has aspirations to be the successor to Richard Ayoade's Submarine (2010), but actually feels much more like a companion piece to Joe Stephenson's Chicken (2015).
Eighteen months after losing twin brother Edward Hogg in an accident, Jodie Whittaker has been struggling to come to terms with being an individual. Much to the frustration of mother Lorraine Ashbourne, she has taken to living in the garden shed, where she maintains Hogg's website and draws faces on her thumbs to star them in homemade sci-fi videos. Grandmother Eileen Davies wishes Ashbourne would cut Whitaker some slack about her unconventional dress sense and urges her to stop trying to pair her off with unsuitable partners like hairdresser David Anderson. But Ashbourne is determined to snap Whitaker out of what she feels to be unhealthy self-pity and announces that she wants her in a flat of her own before her 30th birthday.
Estate agent Brett Goldstein feels bad about trying to find Whitaker a suitable property, as he has long had a crush on her. But he is too bashful to act on it, even though he drops in to see her every day at the Peak District activity centre where she drives boss Alice Lowe to distraction with her eccentricity. Lowe and Ashbourne hope that Whitaker will snap back to normality when best friend Rachel Deering returns from a year-long adventure in Asia. She is surprised to see Whitaker living in a cramped shed surrounded by mementoes of Hogg, but hopes to regain her trust by getting a job at the centre.
In fact, the person who gets under Whitaker's defences is eight year-old neighbour Ozzy Myers, who is left in her charge after his mother is rushed to hospital following a cancer relapse. Dressed in a cowboy outfit and as sardonic as he is sullen, Myers has no qualms about asking Whitaker the kind of personal questions everyone else avoids. So, she shows him some of the videos she made with Hogg and allows him to keep a couple of his badges.
Davies also takes a shine to the little scamp and makes him a holster for his cap gun and gives him one of Hogg's old pullovers that has shrunk in the wash. But Whitaker is dismayed by the gesture and hurts Myers's feelings by demanding its return. He draws her a picture and tries to tell her about his favourite book. But, even though she allows him the odd sleepover when his grandmother is at the hospital and his father is working as an explosives expert, Whitaker doesn't want to babysit a kid, especially as his situation reminds her too intensely of the pain of her own loss.
She also tries to back out when Deering suggests a night out. But, during one of her regular chats with Hogg by the dam they had made in the stream, he encourages Whitaker to get on with her life. Unimpressed by the flats she views and upset by a cull of the moles she has been counting by the boating sheds, Whitaker agrees to the club trip and is letting herself be carried away by the music when she spots Hogg in his trademark blue wetsuit across the dance floor. Rushing outside to hail a cab all the way home from the distant town, Whitaker is distraught to discover that Deering had left the shed door open and they argue after she realises that all her precious videotapes have been stolen.
In fact, Myers had taken them because he had been stung by the fact Whitaker had let his picture fall on the floor. Moreover, as an only child, he likes the closeness they reveal between Whitaker and Hogg. Indeed, such is his devotion to her that, when she tells him the body is forever regenerating, he follows her example on learning that his mother has died, by shaving off a clump of hair so that he will always have a part of himself that was alive when she was. But Whitaker is so angry with him for taking the tapes that she bawls at him that he is destined to have as miserable a life as she has had.
Overcome with fear at realising that the time has come to move on, Whitaker makes a clumsy play for Goldstein on learning that he is not gay (as she had always assumed). However, they regain their composure after falling into the hull of a boat and returns to her shed to find that Ashbourne has boarded it up. She also discovers that Myers has gone missing and feels guilty that her cruel words might have placed him in jeopardy. Arming herself with the walkie-talkie they had used to chat after dark, Whitaker searches the woods. She comes across Hogg by the stream and he reassures her that everything will be okay. Myers is woken by the exchange and is puzzled to find Whitaker talking to herself. She is so relieved to see him that she gives him a piggyback ride all the way home and, the next day, she asks Ashbourne if Myers's father can blow up the shed for her birthday present.
Deering comes to see her for a last hug on the sofa, amidst the boxes carefully labelled so that none of Hogg's possessions go astray. Goldstein also pops in to give her a special present of an `adult life skills' shirt badge before she emerges to find that Ashbourne and Davies have laid out some bunting and party food and they stand together to watch `Shed Zeppelin' (aka `Right Shed Fred' and `Dawn of the Shed') being reduced to splinters.
The shed gags rather sum up the awkwardly cutesy nature of much of the humour in a screenplay that is very light on backstory and secondary character depth and over-stuffed with girl-friendly pop cultural references that could almost be described as Tunnardtinoesque. But Tunnard has an ear for dialogue, especially where the excellent Whitaker and the other female cast members are concerned. Some of the badinage between Whitaker, Ashbourne and the sex-obsessed Davies is very funny, as is the beautifully observed scene in which Whitaker and Deering sit in a pub garden to drink their white wine even though it is dank and grey outside.
Myers also has some sharp lines, as the innocent wise beyond his years who listens earnestly to everything and is not afraid to speak his mind. Sometimes feeling like he has strayed in from The Last of the Summer Wine, Goldstein is less well served as the milquetoast who has returned after working away to concentrate on his novel. But the sense of place and community is neatly established and nicely sustained by a director whose editorial experience has evidently taught her much about the rhythms of daily life.
Tunnard also has a good eye for an image, although the videos attributed to Hogg and Whitaker are more than a little twee, while the bid to introduce a little profane profundity via the space-travelling thumb people feels a bit forced. Moreover, the symbolic detonation of the shed is as heavy handed as the caravan fire in Chicken. Nevertheless, Tunnard largely keeps the bathos at bay in persuading viewers that her heroine is a real person dealing with grief in her own way rather than a quirky construct whose whimsical antics have somehow been tolerated for almost two years by her family and friends without attracting the attention of a psychiatrist.
By contrast, writer-director Bill Clark finds it much more difficult to avoid extremes of emotion in chronicling the troubled life of children's author Tom Ray in Starfish. As much an attempt to raise public awareness of the dangers of septicaemia as a biopic, this is a noble and more than capable venture. Yet, despite depicting Ray's battle back from the brink with sincerity and compassion, this is likely to find a more appreciative audience on the small screen than it did in cinemas.
Juggling writing with child-minding duties, Tom Ray (Tom Riley) enjoys his moments alone with his young daughter, Grace (Ellie Copping). While out flying a kite near Rutland Water in December 1999, he tells her about starfish and how they are able to grow new rays. The irony of his remarks comes back to haunt him within hours, as he suddenly begins to feel unwell in the night after eating some out-of-date sausages. Despite vomiting, he continues to feel cold the next morning. But, even though the daylight hurts his eyes and he has a headache and muscle pain, he is convinced he is merely suffering from food poisoning.
He rallies after taking some stomach medicine. But, when his heavily pregnant wife, Nicola (Joanne Froggatt), gets home that evening, she finds Tom ashen faced and blue lipped and on the verge of losing consciousness. She accompanies him to hospital, where no one seems entirely sure what is wrong and Tom is left in an isolated bed after undergoing a series of tests. Around midnight, Nicola notices that an angry rash has started spreading across Tom's chest and it was only after he started exhibiting more alarming symptoms that he was rushed to intensive care.
After what seems an eternity, Nicola is summoned by the senior consultant (Simon Bamford), who informs her that Tom has sepsis. He also tells her that only one in ten of patients in his condition live beyond 24 hours and Nicola is confronted with the agonising decision of whether to give her consent to the half-amputation of all Tom's limbs if he is to have any chance of survival. Within hours, however, she is asked to sign more papers because the condition has caused necrotic reaction around her husband's nose and mouth.
While Tom recovers from his disfiguring surgery, Nicola gives birth to their son, Freddy. Yet, while she comes to rely heavily on her mother, Jean (Michele Dotrice), to look after Grace, Tom's mother (Phoebe Nicholls) is more distant and we learn from flashbacks to his childhood that he was largely ignored by his father (Greg Haiste) before he abandoned the family. Tom had vowed to be a good parent, but his illness seems to have robbed him of the chance even to hold his new baby. Moreover, when Nicola brings Grace to see him in hospital, she is so distressed by the sight of his bandaged face that she says, `That's not my daddy,' before running away.
Eventually, Tom is allowed home and learns how to walk on his artificial legs. He also comes to master the use of his myoelectric hands. But parts of his memory have been erased and he finds it difficult to be nursed by Nicola when he knows she is distressed by the results of his facial reconstruction (especially as they had previously set such store by kissing). He also resents Jean trying to organise the family to lighten the load on her daughter. Thus, he is deeply resentful when mounting debts force them to sell the family home and move in with Jean.
In order to beat his depression, Tom turns to drink. But his moods darken, especially when he is denied an insurance payment because there is no identifiable source of the infection. He is in no mood to listen, therefore, when Grace reminds him about starfish. Instead, he snaps that they only live in saltwater. So, Grace steals the salt cellar from the dinner table and sprinkles the surface of the reservoir in the hope of bringing about a miracle.
Desperate to help out, Tom writes to his father (who has become a well-known actor). But he never receives a reply and feels embarrassed when Nicola begins fund-raising on his behalf. To this point, Nicola has been unwaveringly supportive and understanding of Tom's mental, as well as his physical state. But, one day, the cynical self-pity proves too much and she launches into him for his ingratitude. She reminds him of the strain that she and Jean bear so willingly because they love him. However, the time has come for him to give something back and the message hits home so hard that Tom puts himself at risk to climb a ladder to retrieve a football that a young neighbour had kicked over a fence.
This final act of may seem minor. But it's staged like a Herculean labour, as Tom struggles valiantly to achieve his heroic redemption while a scared, but proud Nicola looks on. It's at this point that Clark introduces the audience to the real Tom and Nicola. But, in fact, Tom has been body-doubling for Tom Riley in the limb close-ups and - despite the excellence of Riley's performance and Melissa Lackersteen's lifelike facial make-up - it's only then that it becomes possible to appreciate the magnitude of his fightback.
While he charts Tom's course ably enough, Clark might have replaced the heavy handed childhood flashbacks with an outline of Tom and Nicola's unlikely romance, as she nearly lost him twice after they split up following a student romance at Exeter University and only got back together after his first marriage fell apart and he sent her a note asking if she remembered him. It might also have been worth mentioning that Nicola was a successful maker of documentaries, commercials and pop promos when Tom resurfaced, although this would diminish the dramatic impact of her need to summon unsuspected depths in order to make an appeal at a charity function for a change in the law regarding compensation for those debilitated in accident and non-combat situations.
Clark (who knew Nicola in her film-making days) also plays down the fact that she had a nervous breakdown after four years of nursing a man she still loved, but could no longer make love with. But Froggatt admirably conveys the grief and frustration that Nicola must have felt in the poignant tirade that shakes Riley out of his torpor. Yet, the most affecting moment comes when Ellie Copping steals the salt, as Clark captures her innocent faith with a restraint that might have been applied to some of the more emotive scenes involving Riley and Froggatt.
Clearly budgetary constraints and a need to keep the story simple preclude the inclusion of any rallying friends. But the sense that the Rays were left to cope in near isolation is slightly misleading and somewhat melodramatic. Nevertheless, this is a well-meaning film that has already done much to publicise a condition that claims 44,000 in every 150,000 who contract it.
Taking place `Somewhere, a while ago already', Xavier Dolan's It's Only the End of the World sees the Quebecois auteur work with a stellar French cast for the first time in adapting a lauded play by Jean-Luc Lagarce, who died of AIDS at the age of 38 in 1995. Having earned a reputation as an enfant terrible with How I Killed My Mother (2009), Heartbeats (2010), Laurence Anyways (2012), Tom At the Farm (2013) and Mommy (2014), the 27 year-old Dolan has declared this to be his `first film as a man'. But, while he reins in the dramatic and stylistic flamboyance that has characterised much of his earlier work, Dolan is hidebound by the talkativity of the conversational scenario and, thus, struggles to convey its emotional intensity, despite shooting much of the action in tight close-ups designed to counter the overtly theatrical nature of the material.
After 12 years away, Gaspard Ulliel returns home to inform his family that he is dying (of an unspecified disease). He lands with a sense of dread that intensifies during the lengthy cab ride, but he is given a warm welcome by mother Nathalie Baye, sister Léa Seydoux and sister-in-law Marion Cotillard, whom he has never met before. Baye forgets that Ulliel missed the wedding and her nervous laugh earns her a reprimand from Seydoux, who was only a girl when her brother left. She introduces him to Cotillard and criticises them for shaking hands. But husband Vincent Cassel comes to Cotillard's rescue by reminding Seydoux that she and Ulliel are strangers.
While Baye fusses over canapés, Cotillard shows Ulliel photographs of her children. They are staying with her mother and she gets flustered as she tries to describe how much her daughter resembles Cassel. He stares out of the window with his back to the others and snaps at needing to be reminded of the happiest moments of his life. As he scolds Cotillard for boring everyone with family trivia, Ulliel rolls his eyes as the tensions he has avoided for over a decade come rushing in and he wonders how on earth he is going to break his news. Their eyes meet and Cotillard senses his sadness. But she continues to babble about how she came to name her son and accidentally lets slip a homophobic slur about gay men not having children that makes Seydoux smile and Cassel seethe with patronising rage.
Recognising that Ulliel is feeling overwhelmed, Seydoux sweeps him off to see her room. Her wall is covered with her drawings and press cuttings chronicling Ulliel's success as a playwright. She shows him her collection of the postcards he has sent on her birthday and wonders why he has opted for such a public mode of communication when a letter would be more private and intimate. He blenches, as he knows that postcards (no matter how carefully they are chosen) suggest the haste and duty associated with dashing off a note while on holiday. But Seydoux insists she isn't complaining, as Baye has made it clear that Ulliel has made his choices and that the family has to respect them.
While Seydoux complains about the heatwave and the fact she has to ferry her mother around in Cassel's old car, Ulliel is reminded of the old family home by the belongings stored away in a back bedroom. Further memories flood in, as they gather in the kitchen and Baye recalls the Sunday picnics they used to enjoy in the country before Seydoux was born. Cassel ticks her off for being sentimental and repeating stories everyone has heard a dozen times before. But even he cracks a smile when the Moldovan boy band O-Zone's disco hit `Dragostea Din Tei' comes on the radio and Baye and Seydoux perform one of their old aerobics dances.
Thoughts of lost sunny days fill Ulliel's mind, as he remembers his father lifting him high above his head. But reality returns as he rushes to the bathroom to vomit. He chats to a friend on the phone and admits to being scared about telling his family his time is short. However, he is forced to face up to his own shortcomings when he bumps into Cotillard and she gently reprimands him for accusing Cassel of being callous when he has no idea what her husband thinks or feels or does for a living. Ulliel is stung when she informs him that Cassel hardly speaks about him, but he knows he has never left an address for them to reply to his postcards and that he is the one who walked out on them.
The subject of post crops up when Baye summons Ulliel to the garden shed, where she is having a crafty cigarette away from Cassel. She reproaches him for not telling her he had moved, as she had been sending letters to his old digs. Moreover, she urges him to be more positive towards Cassel and Seydoux, as they got left behind when he vanished and she thinks he owes it to them to approve of their choices and encourage them to make more of themselves. She realises that Seydoux has itchy feet, but frets that she is too naive to avoid the pitfalls of independence. Baye also knows that this is Ulliel's last visit and she wants it to be one they can all look back on with a degree of affection.
Wondering whether this is the moment, Ulliel is knocked off course when Baye asks his age. She sprays a sample perfume on her wrist and asks if she should buy some for herself at Christmas. They embrace and Ulliel gazes into the lens, as he watches the net curtains fluttering in the breeze coming through the open window. He steels himself, but Baye implores him to keep the mood light for the remainder of his stay. She notices the resemblance to his father and smiles, leaving Ulliel torn between disregarding her wish and hurting her by not having the courage to say what needs to be said.
Over lunch, Ulliel looks at his watch as Cassel tells a cruel anecdote about a Down Syndrome girl and some chickens. Baye thinks it's hilarious, but Cotillard is offended and Cassel barks at her when she suggests he changes the subject. In a bid to keep the peace, Ulliel suggests a trip to the old family home. But Cassel shoots him down because it has been empty for several years and he has no wish to be reminded of the neighbourhood they had struggled for so long to leave. Baye tries to change tack by asking Ulliel for some showbiz gossip. But he regrets that he rarely goes out and Seydoux fills the awkward silence by accusing Cassel of trying to humiliate her in front of her brother. He rejoins that she is showing off and then turns on Ulliel when he asks Cotillard for a cup of coffee and she nervously calls him `sir' in reply.
Wandering into the basement, Ulliel sees his old mattress and relives his first moments of passion with the long-haired blonde who had also introduced him to drugs. His reverie is interrupted by Cotillard, however, who distractedly asks him how much time he has and suggests that he might like to chat with Cassel. He needs cigarettes and Ulliel accompanies him to the shop. However, when he tries to tell Cassel about his flight and his decision to have breakfast at the airport, Cassel launches into a tirade about how sick he is of people waffling instead of getting to the point. Ulliel tries to explain that he was merely making small talk, but Cassel denounces him for blathering in a bid to disguise the chasm between them. He puts his foot down in his fury and has to swerve to avoid a cyclist. Ulliel covers his eyes and wishes he was somewhere else. But there's no escape when they return to the house and Cassel callously announces that Ulliel's first love has died of cancer.
Smoking alone in the garden, Ulliel feels the heat of the afternoon sun and hears the relentless tick of the cuckoo clock in the hallway. Cotillard is worried that the brothers have fallen out, but Baye is too preoccupied with making dessert to notice. Cassel joins Seydoux for a cigarette in her room and he begs her not to let Ulliel's little act fool her, as he has always put himself first and has barely given them a second thought all the time he has been away. She shoots him a quizzical look and looks even more perplexed when he consoles her with the notion that it will all be over soon anyway.
Congratulating herself on her puddings, Baye looks round the table. Sensing his moment has arrived, Ulliel announces that he intends to visit more often and write longer letters. He invites Seydoux to stay with him and invites Cassel out to dinner. Cotillard reaches for her husband's hand under the table, as he tries to find excuses not to go. Both give the impression that they know what Ulliel is trying to say. But Baye and Seydoux appear nonplussed, especially when Cassel suddenly jumps up and offers to drive Ulliel to the airport so he can get back to the city in time for his big meeting. Dismayed that he has an appointment on a Sunday, Seydoux pleads with Ulliel to spend the night, so they can have breakfast together. But Cassel grows more insistent and Ulliel bows to his pressure and agrees that he has to go.
Crushed by the anguished relief that Ulliel's revelation has been supressed, Cotillard bids him farewell. But Seydoux is furious with Cassel for driving Ulliel away and the implication is that this is not the first time. Baye tries to adjudicate, but it puzzled by the sudden need for Ulliel to leave. Fighting back the tears, Cassel insists that it is not his fault that Ulliel cannot stay and is so enraged by Seydoux's seething accusations that he almost punches Ulliel when he tries to intervene. He regains his composure in time, however, and Baye embraces Ulliel and promises that they will be better prepared next time he calls.
Left alone with Cotillard, Ulliel realises that she knows his secret and puts his index finger to his lips. As she follows Baye and Cassel into the garden, the cuckoo clock chimes the hour and a small bird zooms in through the window. Ulliel ducks as it flies over him and crashes on to the carpet. He pulls his baseball cap over his brow and walks through the door, leaving the camera trained on the heaving chest of the ailing bird.
Although this closing symbol feels a touch de trop, Dolan deserves credit for keeping his cine-exuberance in check and allowing the focus to remain firmly on his extraordinary ensemble. It's tempting to suggest that this might not have been quite so compelling with lesser actors, as so much emphasis is placed on the expressions and emphasis of a shrewdly cast quintet. Cassel is peerless when it comes to inarticulate macho ferocity, while Seydoux (with her flower-tattooed biceps) suggests a slutty potheaded naiveté that contrasts so starkly with Cotillard's knowingly tactful timidity. Torn between contempt and regret, Ulliel manages to be both enigmatically reprehensible and empathetic, while Baye demonstrates again under thick make-up and a dark brown bob the effortless versatility that she brought to Antoine Cuyper's Prejudice (2015) and Frédéric Mermoud's Moka (2016), which recently featured in MyFrenchFilmFestival.
Serving as his own editor and subtitle translator, Dolan certainly reveals a new maturity. But he lacks the storytelling finesse to prevent this from seeming like a sequence of studied and stagily eloquent set-pieces. Moreover, by sticking largely to close-ups in order to keep the audience at the centre of the emotionally draining action, he leaves himself few stylistic options (especially as cinematographer André Turpin often opts for such murky lighting) and it might have been interesting to see him adopt more of a Rainer Werner Fassbinder approach to filming stage plays. Abetted by Gabriel Yared's deft score, he does leave sufficient space, however, for viewers to ponder the relationships between the characters and speculate on who knows (or suspects) what and why they are so unwilling to face up to the pent-up emotions and vicious truths keeping them together and apart.
Dolan's fellow Canadians Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski are busy boys. In addition to providing visual and make-up effects for Hollywood features like Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim (2013) David Ayer's Suicide Squad (2016), they are also part of the Astron Six collective, alongside Adam Brooks, Conor Sweeney and Matt Kennedy. Since debuting with the 2008 short, Lazer Ghosts 2: The Return to Laser Cove, the Winnipeg cabal has gone on to create cult hits like Father's Day, The Manborg and Bio-Cop (all 2011) and The Editor (2014), as well as the self-promoting documentary, No Sleep, No Surrender, and the `W Is for Wish' segment of The ABCs of Death 2 (2014). However, the drop the geeky gags and knowing references for their latest co-directed outing, The Void, which takes a more serious approach to switching the action of John Carpenter's cult classic, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) - and, for that matter, Jean-François Richet's 2005 remake - to a hospital due to close for repairs after a blaze.
Indeed, fire plays a crucial role in the opening sequence, as father-and-son vigilantes Daniel Fathers and My Byskov set fire to the female companion of the fleeing Evan Stern after they break into their secluded home. Collapsing in the road in front of cop Aaron Poole, Stern is rushed to the nearest hospital, where doctor Kenneth Welsh is maintaining a skeleton staff after the basement was badly damaged in a conflagration. Duty staffer Stephanie Belding rushes the badly wounded patient away on a gurney, while Poole chats to James Millington and his teenage granddaughter, Grace Munro, who has started having contractions. He is also given a coffee by administrator Kathleen Munroe, who still finds it difficult to talk to Poole after their marriage collapsed following the death of their child.
Welsh tries to console Poole, as his own daughter had also died young. But he wonders what on earth has possessed him when he hears the sound of gunshots and comes running to see that Poole has killed Belding after she had rushed at him with a pair of scissors after gouging out Stern's eyes while protesting that she is no longer inhabiting her own body. By the time he comes round, Poole has been joined by state trooper Art Hindle (who knew Poole's cop father), who informs him that Stern is a known drug felon who appears to have run amok in a nearby house.
Confiscating Poole's weapon, Hindle allows him report the incident to station dispatch Amy Groening. However, he is forced to go out to his car when he finds the landlines are down. Curiously, there is no answer and, as he gets out of his vehicle, Poole sees a figure in white hooded robes (with a black triangle over the face) coming towards him. Despite being stabbed in the shoulder during a struggle, Poole manages to escape his attacker and intern Ellen Wong helps Welsh staunch the bleeding. Meanwhile Belding's corpse seems to shudder and sprout tentacles and it has evolved into a fully fledged monster with designs on Stern by the time Poole and Mitchell rush to investigate.
They rescue Stern, only for him to grab Munro as a hostage when Fathers and Byskov burst through the phalanx of robed figures surrounding the hospital to threaten to kill him. Amidst much shouting, Welsh attempts to reason with Stern and is stabbed in the neck for his trouble. As he falls bleeding, Munro has a spasm and Munroe and Wong don't quite know where to turn as the Belding creature grabs Mitchell and disappears along the corridor. Byskov grabs a fire axe and, after Fathers blows part of the monster's head off, he proceeds to hack wildly at its torso as all manner of fluids gush from the wounds before it collapses.
With Stern unconscious and cuffed to a wall fixture, Poole demands to know what Fathers and Byskov know about the ghouls outside. The latter shows the scar on his throat where they damaged his vocal chords and Fathers insists that they are staying put until he has finished with Stern. However, he accedes to Poole's demand to get rid of Berling's carcass and they push it outside on a flaming gurney before agreeing to creep out to the cop car and retrieve Poole's rifle. They manage to make it back through the static hoodies, but Munroe encounter a re-animated Walsh when she goes to get supplies to deal with the problems arising from Munro's difficult pregnancy.
Poole and Fathers realise his body is missing and they go in search of Munroe, while Wong tends the Byskov's hand injuries. There is no sign of her in the dispensary, but they gather enough medicine to help Wong care for Munro. Fathers also finds a box full of Polaroids and he is looking through them when the phone rings. The light flashing indicates that Welsh is in the morgue and he tells Poole that he is trying to help them and needs Munroe for his scheme.
Fathers and Poole return to the others and urge them to stay calm while they try to find Munroe. They wake Stern and Byskov breaks his index finger with a hammer to scare him into revealing that Welsh is the leader of the hooded clan and that he was forced to have sex and kill people at their bidding before he managed to escape. He begs them not to confront Welsh, but they haul him down to the basement in the hope he can help them identify his weakness. Getting directions from Wong by walkie-talkie, they creep along by torchlight and find a staircase that Wong knows nothing about. Forcing Stern to lead the way, they light up the space with a red flare and Stern recognises the detritus from the farmhouse where he was help capture.
Meanwhile, Munroe wakes to find herself strapped down to an operating table and Welsh explains that the loss of his teenage daughter prompted him to find ways to conquer death. At the same time, Munro experiences a contraction and Wong gives her an injection to alleviate the pain. But nothing seems likely to help Munroe, as Welsh explains that he made a few mistakes in trying to perfect his life-saving techniques and he kept them chained in the basement until they started the fire. These grotesques are kept behind a door with a black triangle painted on it and Poole, Fathers, Byskov and Stern venture inside, despite the latter's vehement protests.
His fears prove well founded, as, while Poole blasts some of the pitiful creatures, one succeeds in dragging the squirming Stern into a corner. His screams are matched by Munro, who has now gone into labour and Wong (who has only the basic nursing training) is too scared to make the Caesarian incision that alone can save her and the baby. But Munro is quite capable of taking care of herself and she stabs Millington through the throat before explaining to Wong that she is privileged to be able to carry Welsh's baby and she drifts away in the company of a hooded escort.
As Wong tries to find the others, Byskov is set upon by Fathers who blames him for failing to protect his family. But he fends Fathers off by burning him with a flare and he cowers apologetically in a corner. Going on alone, Poole finds Munroe and she shows him her baby bump. As he holds her hand, Welsh's voice taunts him that he had been relieved when she lost her child and he has given her a second chance at motherhood. When he looks down, Poole sees a huge tentacled creature emerging from her and, to put an end to Munroe's suffering, he bludgeons her with the fire axe.
But Welsh is only getting started. He beckons Munro towards him as she drives a knife into Poole's back and Welsh (now in the form of a demon) commends her for all she has done. He kneels before a large black triangle and declares that he is going to conquer death by bringing his daughter back to laugh and calls upon the abyss to open up for him. As light pours through the triangular hole in the wall, Munro asks Welsh to bless her baby. But the monstrous child simply bursts through its mother's stomach and drags her behind it, as she confronts Fathers and Byskov, who have finally stumbled into the morgue.
Screeching like a banshee, the entity pins Fathers down as he tries to shoot it. But Byskov stands firm and (with the spirit of a woman and her baby behind him), he tosses a flare into a pool of chemicals that sets the creature alight. As she flails in agony, Poole buries the axe in Welsh's shoulder. But he merely urges him to end his resistance and promises to reunite him with Munroe if he embrace his power. However, Poole summons the strength and courage to charge at Welsh and push him into the void, which closes up the moment the both plunge through it.
Taking his chance, Byskov scarpers through the corridors. However, he is followed by the monstrous daughter until he leaps through a narrow gap and finds himself back in the main hospital, with his pursuer seemingly unable to follow him. He reunites with Wong and they cling to each other in relief, as dawn brings a red sky. But Poole and Munroe find themselves in a more menacing environment, as thunder cracks in the sky behind a vast black pyramid and they hold hands in trepidation.
If HP Lovecraft had written Rosemary's Baby and Stuart Gordon and Clive Barker had fought over the rights, it might look something like this squirmingly effective chiller. Gillespie and Kostanski might have taken a little longer to provide the principals with some backstory in order to establish the connections between them and lure the audience into rooting for the good guys. But they commit to the scenario and draw us into the depths of the kind of decrepit hospital that is becoming something of a sci-horror cliché. Moreover, they create some genuinely unsettling creature effects and resist the temptation to over-obfuscate them with shadows, shakicam and diced editing.
They also time the jolts well and coax some decent performances out of a cast of largely jobbing actors who enter into the spirit with grim aplomb. That said, the closing sequence in the beyond feels like a miscalculation (even if it has been tossed in as sequel bait), if only because the monolithic edifice looks as puny as the Stonehenge that is almost kicked over by the dwarfs in Rob Reiner's This Is Spinal Tap (1984).