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BERLIN — Set among the rugged mountains on the Western Cape of South Africa, Greek director Harry Patramanis’ Fynbos is a moody psychological mystery that overcomes a dawdling start by virtue of its striking location, haunting sense of place and increasingly unsettling stillness. But rather than inching toward a lucid conclusion, this slow-moving, stiffly acted film, which also played at Slamdance, remains too stubbornly elliptical to be satisfying.
The story opens as a middle-class white woman, Meryl (Jessica Haines), wanders into a poor part of Cape Town, where she disposes of her official documents, cash and other personal effects before phoning police to report being robbed. From the cool response of her husband Richard (Warrick Grier), we perceive that communication between them is strained, and Meryl’s journal entries hint at possible physical abuse. But how much of her account is reliable remains unclear.
Richard is a property developer whose financial survival depends on closing the sale of an unfinished luxury home tucked among the rocky slopes, thick vegetation and hidden waters of Kogelberg Nature Reserve. Called Fynbos Estate, the gated property is crowned by a gleaming glass box overlooking a shantytown. But as they drive toward it, Richard reassures Meryl: “From up there you can’t see any of this. It doesn’t exist.”
Their arrival at Fynbos interrupts the sexual idyll of Richard’s house-sitter friend VJ (Chad Philips) and his girlfriend Renee (Cara Roberts), whose nymphlike presence does little to soothe Meryl’s glum agitation. Her behavior becomes more thorny when a prospective English buyer, Anne (Susan Danford), and her brother Lyndon (John Herbert) show up to get a feel for the place.
As the group roams the surrounding area the next day, looking at ancient tribal rock paintings, Meryl wanders off and Richard returns with a bleeding gash on his head. He keeps quiet about his wife’s absence for a time, but her disappearance eventually comes to light, prompting an investigation by a local policewoman (Sthandiwe Kgoroge).
Patramanis and co-screenwriter Jonathan Kyle Glatzer have some prime ingredients here for a compelling mystery. Chief among them are an unhappy wife taking steps to erase her identity and an emotionally distant husband with a financial noose tightening around his neck as a lucrative deal hangs in the balance. The ripple of ambiguity running through the secondary characters also keeps things intriguing. Then there’s the sense of wealthy white cultural interlopers on ancient bushman land.
But from the start, the writers appear reluctant to capitalize on those elements by injecting urgency or tension into a story that carries echoes of any number of superior psychological suspense films, among them Picnic at Hanging Rock and Lantana. Instead, Fynbos dwells on atmospherics almost to the exclusion of solid plot developments, keeping its characters and their actions frustratingly opaque.
This is a problem especially with Haines’ Meryl, who registers in her time onscreen as a depressive bore, providing scant emotional access to her sadness. Arguably the most interesting character is the black cop played by Kgoroge. But again, Patramanis under-explores the potential conflict in her observation of the situation as she balances professional detachment with a more personal response to cultural outsiders and social disparity.
Shot in brooding tones by Dieter Deventer, the dramatic landscape lends gravitas to the scenario, as does the mix of composer Coti K.’s ambient music with elemental noise and extended silences. What the film really needs, however, is concrete storytelling skill.
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Forum)
Production company: Four Letter Word
Cast: Warrick Grier, Jessica Haines, Susan Danford, Sthandiwe Kgoroge, Cara Roberts, John Herbert, Chad Philips
Director: Harry Patramanis
Screenwriters: Jonathan Kyle Glatzer, Harry Patramanis
Producer: Eleni Asvesta
Director of photography: Dieter Deventer
Production designer: Jeremy Argue
Music: Coti K.
Costume designer: Diana Cilliers
Editor: Yorgos Mavropsaridis
No rating, 96 minutes
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