By José Sarmiento Hinojosa

An Allegory

Urszula Antoniak switched her narrative methods in the mid 2010’s. After portraying deeply emotional and intimate narrative films like Nothing Personal (2009) and Code Blue (2011), she turned to a minimalistic style, vignette-driven method of portraying an emotional pathos between her characters, specially in Nude Area (2014), where her cinema was stripped bare of most of her usual elements to focus on particular emotional explorations with the image. And while the results of this switch were mixed, Antoniak seems to have found a middle ground with the recent Splendid Isolation (2021), premiered in IFFR 2022.

The bare components of her mise-en-scène are still very much present, but they play a pivotal role in driving the story and setting the atmosphere and place of displacement of her characters. Thus, the film plays as the logic evolution of her filmmaking style, remaining in this camp of minimalism, while adding narrative plots which add to the emotional overall sense of the film. Indeed, there’s no much to play with in terms of locations or characters, and the sense of the film is obviously portraying a film-as-an-analogy piece. Two girls, Anna and Hannah, found themselves in a deserted island, inhabiting an abandoned modern house near the beach. After a series of interactions, games, and processes of reckoning, a strange man recaches the island, representing both a threat and a means of deliverance for each one of the girls. In the final quarter hour of the film, the narration becomes even more abstract and takes a double parallel route, where each girl follows a particular path which affects deeply their overall coexistence and relationship.

This managing of the film as an allegory can be equally fascinating and frustrating. Antoniak had mentioned before, that this film responded to this particular period of pandemic isolation, specially after the loss of her partner. This film can be seen, thus, as a deliverance of the presence of loss in the absence of contact. And here’s where the film delivers in particular. Each element of this stripped-bare setting works particularly well in the expression of this allegory of isolation. The building’s architecture plays a perfect element as the setting where the girls interact. It’s minimalistic architecture, big open windows, scarce furniture and bare concrete walls feel more like a big prison than a house (and this is particularly highlighted with the presence of a strange sound-proof room with a gurney downstairs, a sort of digital panopticon where digital portable tables act as surveillance eyes through drones (which follow the characters throughout almost all the films) and surveillance cameras. For most of the time, it is unsure who is watching who, or if there’s an omniscient presence watching it all, but this gaze, which is transferred through the digital eye-view of the drones, replaces the human eye, and ends up being a mediated and distanced observation. Thus, protectiveness or care turns into vigilance and fear.

Splendid Isolation works at its best when is centered in the small interactions of the couple: playing hide-and-seek, collecting and eating crabs in the kitchen, and following this dissolution of the relationship which ends in its final separation. To venture into particular interpretations in this film would be to serve it poorly: the central element of the film allegory lies in what is left unsaid, and what we experience is a story about -isolation-, care and vigilance, constant tension, deliverance, rejection and fear of the other, elements which can relate immensely to all recent developments of the latest pandemic climate, literally and metaphorically. We are, once again confronted with what this two years brought upon us emotionally, and the deep connection that the film establishes with it is a remarkable achievement.

IFFR Big Screen Competition

Director, screenplay : Urszula Antoniak
Cast: Anneke Sluiters, Abke Haring, Khadija El Kharraz Alami
Producer: Floor Onrust, Noorte Wilshcut Chris Stenger
Editing: Milenia Fiedler
Cinematography: Myrthe Mosterman