A small town in the Luxembourg countryside hides some heinous secrets in Govinda Van Maele’s mystery thriller, Gutland. Though his striking feature debut can be a bit slow-moving, it fascinatingly blurs the line between fantasy and reality, from the eerie intro all the way through to a surprise finale that raises goosebumps. After its Toronto bow, the Stray Dogs release should find open doors at genre venues willing to give an offbeat, beautifully shot thriller a try.
The story of a stranger barging into a closed society and threatening the group’s identity is hardly a new one, though arguably the current immigration wave in Europe makes it topical. Most audiences will latch on to the opposite theme, that of a person succumbing to social pressure and willingly surrendering his own identity to blend in peacefully with the prevailing blandness of society. The drama is shown through the eyes of a German drifter, Jens (Frederick Lau,The Captain), who stumbles onto a remote farming community in search of work.
The long-haired, unkempt stranger emerges from the woods and surveys the scene. The first hint that something is not quite right with this idyllic little town is conveyed by Narayan Van Maele’s cinematography: a luscious, misty, mysterious landscape where wheat fields are blue and green instead of yellow. The needy look in Jens’ eyes when he approaches the curt farmers for work fails to move them, and he ends up drinking alone that night at the crowded town beer hall, intending to move on in the morning. The fact that he speaks German and not Luxembourgish, and that all the merrymakers seem to be in lederhosen except him, further sets him apart as an outsider.
That’s when he is approached, in the friendliest possible way, by Lucy (talented Vicky Krieps, The Chambermaid Lynn), the mayor’s sunny daughter. After a brief chat, she soon takes him home with her for a quickie. Jens can’t help but notice her young son is watching TV and her parents sleeping in the next room. It’s all a bit odd and uncomfortable.
The next morning, however, he discovers it’s a new world out there. Mayor Jos (Marco Lorenzini), her father, gives him a ride and gets him a job as a farmhand at a decent wage, plus a camper to sleep in. Suddenly he’s in with the in crowd. In fact, everyone seems overly friendly. He’s just warned not to mess with married women — the one taboo in Eden. Of course, this edict will come back to haunt him when a drunken hausfrau comes on to him in the men’s room.
Strange things begin to happen. He finds a stack of homemade porn photos in his camper in which the faces have been obliterated. Could these be local women, like the one at a group dinner who unselfconsciously shows off her new silicone implants? And what about the beautiful Lucy, who seems to be all sunlight and joy, splashing naked in the river with her friends? (Jens can’t bring himself to strip and join them.) Her affection for him seems like a gift from heaven, and Krieps does have an angelic lightness about her. But one night, when he follows a girl who looks like Lucy down a dark street, she’s swallowed by the dark.
Then there’s the matter of an abandoned house belonging to a certain gentleman named Georges, another outsider who was never sufficiently embedded among the townsfolk and who disappeared abruptly, leaving dinner on the table. Meanwhile, the evidence is piling up that Jens is not such a simple, honest soul, either.
Van Maele leaves a lot of clues in plain sight, but after an hour the story is still far from coming together. It’s not even clear if it’s going to veer into fantasy-horror, as it well could have done. As the atmosphere continues to densen, two shocker scenes push it into rural thrillerdom. In the first, angry farmers teach two little boys a lesson about playing with firecrackers in the hayloft that should put them off matches forever.
The other scene is the scariest run through a cornfield since Cary Grant outraced a plane in North by Northwest. Again, it starts as a community lesson in good behavior. Jens is sent into an endless forest of corn to find a dead animal that could break the mammoth hay baler, and finds himself in mortal danger.
On an entirely different key from what has gone before, the wickedly ironic ending redeems quite a bit of protracted ambiguity and narrative circling around.
Quite in contrast to the happy community spirit all around Jens are those unnaturally colored fields and other expressionistic oddities like green trees sticking out of a field of frost, signaling that all is not well in this rustic paradise. Mocke’s scary soundtrack with its one-note piano alternates with warm, salacious jazz over scenes of farm work and heavy machinery.
Production companies: Les Films Fauves, Propeller Film, Novak Prod.
Cast: Frederick Lau, Vicky Krieps, Marco Lorenzini
Director-screenwriter: Govinda Van Maele
Producers: Gilles Chanial, Olivier Dubois, Melanie Blocksdorf
Director of photography: Narayan Van Maele
Production designer: Audrey Hernu
Costume designer: Natasha Francotte
Editor: Stefan Stabenow
Music: Mocke (Dominique Depret)
Casting director: Nilton Martins
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Discovery)
World sales: Stray Dogs