Stranger (Storonniy) is playing as part of the Sydney Underground Film Festival, from Sept 9 to Sept 26 2021. Details here.
Stranger (Storonniy) opens with a quote from The Outsider, a creepily poignant and typically xenophobic short story from HP Lovecraft, that doofus of horror. But Ukrainian director Dmytro Tomashpolskyi heads into quite different territory, using the Lovecraft story as elusive analogy for the guilt of people who deliberately go missing and for the pain of people left behind.
A police inspector conducts a solo investigation into the disappearance of a synchronised swim team and what connection there might be to the disappearance of a patient from a water therapy clinic. The chronology is confusing, jumping back and forth in time to such an extent that I started to wonder if the subtitles were wrong. The dialogue swings from overly expository to cryptic as hell, with a slightly comic use of repetition that becomes uncanny in the latter half of the film. At one point, I pretty much gave up trying to work out what was going on and merely watched in bemusement. The few scares are more clumsy and beautiful than horrifying. The creature effects are a little too rubbery to be convincing or aesthetically interesting, inviting unfortunate comparisons to The Shape Of Water (2017). The score is unremarkable aside from one excellent bit when it syncs with the sound of determined footsteps.
Having said all of that, the most rewarding aspect of Stranger is its absolutely stunning cinematography. There’s a wonderful cohesion of imagery in the repeated use of circles, that classical symbol of the feminine. The colours initially move from clear blues and whites to murky pale greens and blues, which keeps with the water theme. And then these rich jewel tones come in glorious contrast, followed with touches of delicious neon, making for a wonderful hallucinatory aesthetic. I particularly loved the use of mustard yellow on the walls of a room which immediately evoked that Gothic feminist classic horror story The Yellow Wallpaper.
It’s a film steeped in allusions to alchemy and classical literature, ranging from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain to elemental water spirits from the writings of Paraclesus, and including an image that will be very familiar to those of us who love Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. In a cast of predominantly women, there is only one male role of importance and one of more mythic significance. Our protagonist, Inspector Glukhovska, is a tall figure of ice and bone, a goddess striding through the weird world of the water clinic and the mundane city. It feels like a curious decision for a male director to tell a story borne out of such personal pain through a cast of so many women, but then I suppose there’s a certain classical resonance to men using women as conduits for their emotion.
There are touches of existentialism here and there, yet the storytelling is so baffling that its ultimate resolution comes off as more banal than poignant and not a little contrived. But then the closing dedication brings it all home, and I won’t deny that made me slightly guilty about my previous frustration.
Overall, a visually gorgeous tale of unresolved pain and existential spookiness that is way too cryptic for its own good.
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