‘The Here After’ (‘Efterskalv’): Cannes Review

Rebel without a get-out clause

An angry young man struggles to escape the shadow of his violent past in this somber Scandi-Polish drama.

A chewy blend of Swedish and Polish ingredients, The Here After was never likely to be a fun frolic on a sun-kissed Baltic beach. Offering a non-judgmental, broadly sympathetic, psychological portrait of a Swedish juvenile delinquent living with the crushing guilt of a violent crime, this modestly compelling glumfest premiered in the Quinzaine sidebar at the Cannes Film Festival.

Partly modeled on real case studies, Warsaw-based Swedish auteur Magnus Von Horn’s feature debut is backed by Lars Von Trier’s Zentropa company and boasts handsome cinematography by Lukasz Zal, who recently clothed Polish Oscar-winner Ida in 50 ravishing shades of gray. Somber and stern, The Here After is vintage Scandi festival fare, though the star billing of chart-topping pop singer Ulrik Munther may help its commercial prospects domestically.

Baby-faced Munther makes a creditable screen debut as John, a sullen teenage loner checking out of a secure institution with his father Martin (Mats Blomgren) as the film opens. Tension starts to crackle between the fractious pair on the long drive back to the remote family farm, which sits at the head of a muddy backwoods track. But John’s homecoming is far from prodigal. Friction soon flares up between son, father and grandfather. On a visit to a hardware store in the nearby small town, a young woman suddenly and violently attacks John. Later, on returning to school, he is frozen out and threatened by former classmates.

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Teasing the viewer with suspenseful scraps of backstory, Von Horn eventually reveals that John has been incarcerated after committing a brutal crime of passion against an ex-girlfriend. He struggles to explain his motives, even to himself, recalling the event like a sleepwalking episode. Churned up by complex feelings of guilt and resentment, he risks serious retribution by returning to the scene of the crime. Shamed family and vengeful ex-friends can barely stand to be near him, and yet John becomes an object of flirtation for Malin (Loa Ek), a sassy new arrival at school. His outsider status and stained reputation only seem to deepen her attraction.

At this point, The Here After might have taken a detour into darker psycho-sexual waters, but Von Horn quickly steers it safely back to sober social realism. Malin’s attempts to redeem John hit some bumpy setbacks, while a lynch-mob mentality begins to simmer among the townsfolk. Shotguns are fired, rocks are thrown and a final explosion of purifying violence becomes inevitable. There are echoes here of Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt, only this time with a protagonist who is inescapably guilty, and driven half mad by that terrible knowledge.

Munther has a quietly mesmerizing face for an anti-hero, all sharp cheekbones and pixie-ish features, suggesting both cherubic innocence and demonic mischief. His affectless expression is almost the opposite of acting, but it suits Von Horn’s minimal style with its long silences, abrupt cuts, music-free soundtrack and detached emotional standpoint. Zal’s heavily static camerawork is similarly austere, using a washed-out color palette nearly as muted as the monochrome tableaux he composed for Ida.

The Here After self-consciously draws on the visual grammar of classic, serious-minded, Euro-Scandi auteur cinema. It smacks of quality workmanship, even if the story is ultimately too slight and familiar to leave a deep impression. But Von Horn’s delivery is precise and thoughtful, showing clear promise for future projects.

Production companies: Lava Films, Zentropa International Sweden

Cast: Ulrik Munther, Mats Blomgren, Loa Ek, Alexander Nordgren, Ellen Jelinek, Wiesław Komasa

Director, screenwriter: Magnus Von Horn

Producers: Madeleine Ekman, Mariusz Włodarski

Cinematographer: Łukasz Żal

Editor: Agnieszka Glinska

Sales company: Trust Nordisk, Denmark

Not rated, 98 minutes

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