Luton: Turin Review

Banality meets evil.

Greek director Michalis Konstantatos aims at Michael Haneke territory in his bleak feature debut.

An unsettling psychological thriller set in contemporary Athens, Luton adds a note of bleak menace to a contemporary Greek cinema scene dominated by surreal black comedy and credit-crunch social realism. The young writer-director Michalis Konstantatos, who also runs his own theater company, conceived his debut feature before the current financial crash, which rules out one obvious reading of the cryptic events it depicts. The title, a reference to the small English city north of London, is a red herring which only becomes fleetingly relevant in the final act.

Luton is playing at the Turin film festival this week, where Konstantatos is currently developing his second feature project as part of a lengthy residence at the festival's spin-off Torino Filmlab. His thought-provoking debut will likely arouse further interest from overseas festival programmers, but its purposely blank and opaque style will limit commercial prospects to narrow Euro-arthouse circles.

Jimmy, played by dishy Robert Pattinson-a-like Nicholas Vlachakis, is a high school student from a wealthy family with an overbearing mother and a university place looming. Mary (Eleftheria Komi) is a thirtysomething junior lawyer with a confusingly  murky private life. And Makis (Christos Sapountzis) is a middle-aged family man who runs a small grocery store. Three characters with little obvious in common, and no apparent crossover in their lives. All appear a little broody and emotionally disconnected, but otherwise normal.

For the first three-quarters of Luton, Konstantatos shoots his main protagonists separately in banal everyday situations: training at the gym, clothes shopping, performing tedious work tasks, making stiff small talk at awkward family meals. Nothing unusual, although the spectacle of Makis enjoying surprise birthday sex over the dinner table proves a rare moment of bleak humor. Lingering on forensic details in long static shots and slow zooms, the camerawork manages to suggest creeping dread without signposting any firm clues.

All this simmering low-level tension finally erupts in the film's third act, when the three main characters are revealed to be collaborators in a bizarre series of violent acts against vulnerable strangers. Cross-cutting between these barbaric episodes in a non-linear collage, Konstantatos amplifies their horrific impact. There are traces of Michael Haneke circa Funny Games here, though the sadism is neither as savage nor as sustained.

Although he offers no explanatory context as to how and why this ill-matched trio came to share their malicious project, the director's stated intention with this lopsided narrative structure is to make viewers reconsider the apparent normality of the preceding scenes in a different light. In this he arguably succeeds, but it is a high-stakes gamble to first risk boring your audience, then risk nauseating them.

Luton is an intriguing and thoughtful debut, but more of an intellectual experiment than a dramatically satisfying whole. While Konstantatos is clearly a rising talent to watch, the point he appears to be making here about psychotic violence lurking just below the surface of outwardly normal citizens feels too cryptic, or maybe just too obvious, to leave a lasting impact.

Production company: Horsefly Productions
Producer: Yorgos Tsourgiannis
Starring: Eleftheria Komi, Nicholas Vlachakis, Christos Sapountzis
Director: Michalis Konstantatos
Writers: Michalis Konstantatos, Stelios Likouresis
Cinematographer: Yannis Fotou
Editor: Yorgos Mavropsaridis
Sales company: Horsefly Productions, Athens
Unrated, 100 minutes

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