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Film review: Relic, The Other Lamb, 40 Days and Forty Nights

by
13 November 2020

Stephen Brown watches two new horror films and revisits a highly moral comedy

Michiel Huisman as Shepherd with his white-clad female “flock” in The Other Lamb

Michiel Huisman as Shepherd with his white-clad female “flock” in The Other Lamb

TRAVERSING labyrinths, like those at Chartres and Wakefield Cathedrals, can be journeys of the soul with all their twists and turns en route. In Relic (Cert. 15), we are being invited to compare them to the state of dementia with its loss of old certainties — our power to reason, being in control, having all the time in the world, etc. As with the windmills of our minds, we can only trust that there is some way out of life’s turmoil and confusion and that we will recover a sense of wholeness.

The writer-director Natalie Erika James, in her debut feature film, conjures up a nightmarish scenario, unnecessarily adding an excessively ominous soundtrack.

Relic is set in rural Victoria, Australia. Accompanied by her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote), Kay (Emily Mortimer) travels upcountry from Melbourne. Edna (Robyn Nevin), her elderly mother, has disappeared. They are shocked to find the house dilapidated, a mere vestige of its former glory. It is an indication that they have not been regular visitors to their ageing relative.

When she reappears, whatever has impelled Edna’s expedition is beyond words for her to express. She remains mysteriously silent about it. Erratic behaviour follows, one moment tender and vulnerable, then suddenly aggressive. It forces Kay and Sam into recognising signs of dementia.

She is certainly not quite the person the two younger women remember. It is here, if only with hindsight, that we perceive the film’s labyrinth motif. Mother and daughter are as lost as Edna in navigating the mazes of her deteriorating mind. In the Greek myth, a gruesome beast terrorises those entering the labyrinth. Relic withholds any reliable information about what, in different ways, threatens the three women.

Edna worries about a foreboding presence. Sam occasionally feels this also, though she attributes it mainly to activities emanating from the rapidly changing moods of her grandmother. It is Kay who has to journey furthest from being absentee daughter to taking responsibility for her parent. Unlike the Greek myth, there isn’t an Ariadne offering a way out with the equivalent of a ball of thread.

What is occurring in Edna’s mind eventually transfers itself to the house, as we witness it transmogrifying into a warren of false turnings. Halls, walls, cupboards close in on all who dwell there — people blindly stumbling as if (in the words of Edwin Muir’s poem “The Labyrinth”) the maze itself were after them.

Yet, for all these mythological and spiritual connotations, perhaps more attention should be given to the title of the film. The Edna whom we now see is only a relic of her former self. It is heartbreaking to monitor her decline. Yet memories of who she essentially was (and remains so in their hearts) offer hope. As the Gelasian Sacramentary puts it, things that were cast down are being raised up, and things that had grown old are being made new, and all things are returning to perfection through him from whom they took their origin. Edna’s “soul has bird wings to fly free” (Muir again), leaving behind a sacred relic for her loved ones to cherish.

On current release and available online.

 

IF YOU are looking for a film explaining why people join religious cults, then The Other Lamb (Cert. 18) doesn’t help. Such insights are better found watching The Master (2012), a thinly veiled look at Scientology’s founder. Nevertheless, the new film powerfully depicts being in thrall to a charismatic leader.

From left: Robyn Nevin as Edna, Emily Mortimer as Kay, and Bella Heathcote as Sam in Relic

Here he goes by the name of Shepherd (played by Dutch actor Michiel Huisman) who is Lord to a dozen or so women and children, addressing them as wives or daughters. There are no other males. As a disillusioned follower says, a flock has only one ram. The critically acclaimed Polish director Malgorzata Szumowska matches Shepherd’s claustrophobic, stultifying hold over his followers with one that captivates us, too.

This isn’t the first time that she has dealt with religious material. She co-produced Antichrist (2009). In The Name Of (Arts, 27 September 2013), which she directed, concerned a conscientious priest forced to conceal his sexual orientation till outed. Her present film is set in a rural landscape (Ireland doubling as the USA) with only sheep to keep the women company.

Startling imagery created by Szumowska’s regular cinematographer Michal Englert helps to draw us into an alien world. “Have we truly stripped ourselves from the knowledge that keeps us from the grace of Eden?” asks Shepherd (real name Michael). He, of course, is sole dispenser of this grace. And, if this is an Eden, it is one in which severe punishments follow minor infringements of Shepherd’s rule.

Sarah (Denise Gough) has fallen out of favour and lives in virtual exile. “He forgave me but it was worse than punishment.” A younger, prettier girl — Selah (Raffey Cassidy) — is being groomed by Shepherd. She has known no other existence but this, being the daughter of one of Shepherd’s earlier wives who died in childbirth. Selah gradually learns from Sarah the distasteful truth about Shepherd’s treatment of her mother. The reason that the older woman hasn’t escaped this unsavoury commune is fear that over time she has lost all sense of self. The hold over her is as complete as with the others.

This still doesn’t help us to understand what drew these women to this man in the first place. On the other hand, sociological studies haven’t reached an agreed conclusion over similar cults; so why should this film? The Other Lamb put me in mind of messianic figures such as David Koresh, head of the Branch Davidians during the 1983 siege at Waco, Texas, and Jim Jones, in Guyana in 1978, when hundreds of his followers took their own lives.

Shepherd draws heavily on Christianity to bind his women. No interpretation of scripture but his is tolerated. Only he may tell the story. By weaving it all by himself, he retains the power to dazzle and bewitch his needy flock. Therein may lie the clue to what we see occurring. For all its lack of background depth, we are left to puzzle for ourselves about a mystery whose very attraction may lie at the heart of what keeps both us and these women spellbound.

On current release and available online at mubi.com

 

RARELY does a film quote Mark 1.12-13 . The title of 40 Days and 40 Nights (Cert. 15) consciously invites comparisons that, as Dogberry might have said, could be odorous if it’s much ado about nothing. But this 2002 meet-cute comedy, given a new lease of life online, overcomes the genre’s tedious formulas by majoring on chastity.

Josh Hartnett plays Matt, who decides to abstain from sex during Lent. Like the actor himself, the character is a Roman Catholic. He frequently confides his sexual exploits to his brother John (Adam Trese), a trainee priest. Matt’s promiscuity is in reaction to being dumped by his girlfriend, Nicole (Vinessa Shaw), six months earlier.

Subsequent bedroom capers invariably result in his staring at the ceiling fearing that, like his world, it will crack open and fall on him. He resolves, to John’s astonishment, to forgo sex (and kissing) as a maturer way of dealing with the painful void left by Nicole. Played with broad strokes, his contemporaries, for whom chastity is an unknown phenomenon, cannot believe their ears. His choice unsettles own attitudes to serial relationships. They become like the tempter. The men run a sweepstake on when Matt will yield. Women friends and colleagues are equally hell-bent on seducing him.

In the biblical narrative, the Spirit leads Jesus into a period of self-denial. For Matt, it is while in church that he finds himself impelled to make his pledge to God. A parallel is drawn with being ministered to by an angelic presence. This is in the form of Erica (Shannyn Sossamon), the film’s love interest. She and Matt meet in a laundrette where everything is made clean. At first, his only stategy for resisting a sexual outcome is not to engage with her. “It’s been really fun almost talking to you,” she quips.

It is apparent through succeeding wash nights that Erica, little by little, inculcates an inward purity and moral purpose in him. She is not averse to an erotic encounter, but it would have to be within the context of a loving relationship. The course of true love does not run smooth, but it gives scope for Matt’s spiritual development. He tells his brother that “Everything is better when there’s no sex.” What he really means is that having time for courtship and getting to know each other first adds a profound dimension to their emerging commitment.

In the process of maintaining sexual abstinence, we witness Matt resist the temptations of appetite, power, and conformity. This is a highly moral tale, but not cloying. A holier gladness ours shall be.

The film is available on Netflix.

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