By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Luana Velis, Jan Bluthardt and Julia Riedler
Written and directed by Tilman Singer
Yellow Veil Pictures
The second screening of LUZ at Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival was one of the event’s hottest tickets, with a well-over-capacity crowd massing outside the venue. That a movie as abstract as LUZ could command such enthusiasm is a testament to the adventurousness of Fantasia’s audiences and the word of mouth for this unique mood piece, which is confounding and engrossing in equal measure.
German writer/director Tilman Singer made LUZ as his thesis project at the Academy of Media Arts Cologne, and it absolutely has the feel of a fledgling filmmaker experimenting with the cinematic form without the constraints of commercial expectations, in all the right ways. That’s announced in the first shot—a lengthy, static take of a quiet police station on a rainy night in which nothing happens at first. Then a young woman (Luana Velis) staggers in, clearly freaked out about something, and addresses the receptionist with profanely altered religious phrases.
We’re then taken to a bar where Nora (Julia Riedler) makes the acquaintance of a police psychiatrist, Dr. Rossini (Jan Bluthardt). Their conversation takes on a disquieting turn as Nora regales the doc with reminiscences of Luz, a girl she knew at a Chilean religious school who got up to quite a bit of mischief. Rossini is then called to that police station for an interrogatory session with that young woman—Luz, a cab driver who has clearly been through hell. He decides to hypnotize her to get to the bottom of her past trauma, and as the session goes on, with smoke and increasing unease seeping into the large room, strange revelations and other awful things come to light.
If that sounds like a standard-issue supernatural synopsis, it’s just the simplest way to explain what happens over LUZ’s tight 70-minute running time, during which what we see occurring in the present is just a small part of the story. As Luz regresses back to the events that brought her to the station, sitting in a chair and miming her actions that fateful night, Singer holds our attention with more extended, precisely composed shots, inviting us to immerse ourselves in his atmosphere. He describes LUZ as a “supernatural sensuous thriller,” and traditional narrative concerns are not nearly as important as how the movie feels. Key to this ambience are the cinematography by Paul Faltz—who shot on 16mm film, giving the images a tactile density lacking in digital photography—Simon Waskow’s eerie electronic score and especially the sound design by Jonas Lux, Henning Hein and Steffen Pfauth. Their densely layered audio, commingling voices from the past and present, evocatively expresses the way the former influences the latter.
Though it’s not always forthcoming with explanations for these connections, LUZ doesn’t hold back in other ways, incorporating full nudity of both genders and a few explicitly horrific moments in the final going. It delivers something different from the usual genre pleasures, though, and those who can get on the movie’s wavelength (on evidence of the Fantasia response, there are many) will be fully captivated by it. Credit also to the actors, who fully commit to their roles and Singer’s ambiguous approach; Velis in particular, running a full gamut of emotions, is a real find. Orchestrating it all, Singer is a first-timer already clearly in complete control of his medium, and it’ll be fascinating to see where he goes from here.