Full disclosure - Filip Tegstedt, the director of MARIANNE, is a friend of AICN and has been for a few years now. He's from Sweden, and he's been to several BNATs. One of the things I remember most about him was that he handed out copies of the book LET THE RIGHT ONE IN before anyone - anyone - knew anything about it Stateside. When the film came out a couple of years later, he seemed very much ahead of the curve. One of my favorite things about Butt-Numb-A-Thon is how it brings people from across the planet to Austin just to celebrate the joy of movies. I'd like to think BNAT inspired Filip to throw his hand in the ring and make his own film, and I'm sure he'd say that it definitely played a role.
My issue with MARIANNE was this - since Filip's a good friend, I was hesitant to review his film. If I didn't like it, I was afraid that anything I wrote would affect him poorly. And if I liked it, it would be considered just favoritism. There's nothing I can do about people's perceptions, so I'm not going to even try. But I told Filip that I didn't feel comfortable reviewing the film until it got festival play. So I waited, hoping that would happen, and sure enough, MARIANNE got chosen to play at Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal. And it did extremely well, getting rave reviews from Badass Digest, Twitchfilm, and FEARnet. So when I sat down to it today, I was concerned about what I was going to see, but felt better about reviewing it because it's been out there, playing festivals, and I was worried that I wouldn't find that balance, or that I would be overly critical.
I shouldn't have worried, because from the opening scene, MARIANNE had me hooked. It's a powerful film about a family devastated by loss, about a father who isn't very good at being one, a daughter who despises the man her father has become, and a terrible tragedy that sets off the supernatural events that put the story into motion.
Krister (Thomas Hedengran) is a man tormented by nightmares. His wife Eva (Tintin Anderzon) recently died in a tragic car accident, leaving himself, their newborn daughter Linnea, and their teenage daughter Sandra (Sandra Larsson) to pick up the pieces. Krister, a schoolteacher by day, is a silent, stoic man, but he has guilt in spades - he's never done right by his family, and it seems that his mistress Marianne (Viktoria Sätter) was responsible for the death of Linnea and Sandra's mother. His daughter didn't care much for her father and his infidelities when she was younger, and she outright hates him now. Her boyfriend Stiff (Dylan Johansson) seems to be friendly towards Krister, but Sandra's with him mostly to make her father angry - he's several years older than her. When Sandra drops out of school to move in with Stiff, this leaves Krister alone in the house with his baby daughter.
But for Krister, at night is when the demons truly come. Krister hears footsteps, and the grinding of teeth, and he is cursed with visions of a red-haired woman in a green dress, and his guilt overwhelms him. His therapist, Sven (Peter Stormare) is convinced it's sleep paralysis, and that Krister's problem lies in stress and his recent loss. But Stiff, an amateur ghost hunter, suggests something more sinister is at work - a supernatural creature called the Mare, which seems to be haunting Krister alone. As Krister tries to mend his broken relationship with his daughter, the Mare stalks his nights to the point that steps must be taken, to stop whatever it is that seems to want to hurt Krister and his family. Or it may be that the tragic events are driving Krister insane, and that his loved ones are helpless to stop his descent. It's to Tegstedt's credit as a director that he doesn't overplay his hand one way or the other - whether or not the Mare is real is almost incidental to the guilt that is slowly destroying Krister.
It's a careful line that MARIANNE walks - keeping the domestic story interesting while slowly introducing the element of the supernatural into the narrative, but Tegstedt does it with such skill that it's amazing that this is his first feature-length film. It wouldn't work if the performances weren't so good, but Thomas Hendengran plays Krister as truly regretful for the life that he's led, which makes him sympathetic, and at the same time Sandra's hatred for him feels justified. Even before his wife's death he was living a lie, cheating on her unrepentantly with Marianne, but still loving his family. Sandra Larsson goes beyond the goth chick stereotype to find the wounded little girl underneath - ever since the day she caught her father on a phone call with his mistress at a picnic she has been wary of letting this man get too close to her, but despite herself she needs him in her life. The emotion of MARIANNE lies in its depiction of the relationships, and they feel truthful and real. It is vitally important that this aspect of the story work, or the supernatural side of the film wouldn't be nearly as effective.
While there are very few moments of outright gore in MARIANNE, what Tegstedt has done is evoke genuine unease, which in its way is much more difficult to pull off. The sound work comes into play heavily here; we don't see what is haunting Krister, but we hear it - teeth grinding, high-heeled footsteps slowly coming closer, and MARIANNE builds tension so well that we begin to feel genuine fear for the characters. It's been a while since a horror film so affected me. Most recent horror films treat their characters as meat for the grinder, but we come to love Krister for all his flaws, and Sandra for all of hers, and we become afraid for them as events unfold and more tragedy strikes. And through it all, we see in flashback the events that lead up to the deadly car crash that killed Krister's wife, and while Krister is likable, we never forget that his actions brought him to the state that he is in.
MARIANNE was made for a very low budget, but what the film lacks for so-called "money shots" it makes up for in building real dread and tension. There are moments of shock scares, but there aren't any cats jumping on the bed in MARIANNE - those moments are few and done for maximum effect, propelling the story forward. I'm still finding it hard to believe that this is Filip Tegstedt's first film - it's made with such confidence in its story and such skill with the actors and the script that I almost feel like Filip's been putting one over on me. MARIANNE will be playing the Edmonton International Film Festival on Sunday, September 25th, and it's making the festival rounds, so it's quite possible that it could be playing in your area soon. It's one of the finest ghost stories I've seen, and a hell of a debut for Filip Tegstedt. I hope this is only the beginning of his film career, because originality should be celebrated, and cherished, and allowed to bloom.