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Latvian writer-director Laila Pakalnina has established a uniquely absurdist voice over the last 25 years, switching fluidly between longform dramas, shorts and documentaries. Her latest feature, In the Mirror, is a playful contemporary reboot of the classic Grimm brothers fairy tale Snow White, set in a fitness gym and largely composed of “selfie” shots, with cast members hugging the camera close as they deliver their dialogue straight into the lens. Some viewers may find such highly stylized, anti-naturalistic methods irritating. But for this reviewer, Pakalniņa’s experimental comic fable was the most lively and original world premiere at last month’s Black Nights film festival in Tallinn. Smartly using a 200-year-old folklore story to satirize the narcissism and body fascism of our social media-saturated age, it consistently breaks the fourth wall in witty and inventive ways.
Like Pakalnina’s previous dramatic feature Dawn (2015), which Latvia selected as its official Academy Awards submission, this Latvian-Lithuanian film is mostly shot on agile hand-held cameras and clothed in lustrous monochrome visuals. Even if the storytelling is disjointed at times, In the Mirror never looks less than ravishing, while kinetic editing and a pulsing techno score help to keep energy levels at a maximum. Given the director’s track record as an international festival regular and former Oscar hopeful, this fresh spin on a universally familiar, much-filmed story should have potential to travel globally, earning festival slots and discerning cineaste interest. Los Angeles-based Oration Films signed up world sales rights ahead of the film’s Tallinn premiere.
Pakalnina peoples In the Mirror with a carnivalesque cast including dancers, athletes and other non-professional actors, a gamble which pays off handsomely. Stern and intense, Lauris Dzelzitis plays a recently widowed gym boss and CrossFit trainer. Elza Leimane, a renowned prima ballerina in Latvia, is an inspired choice for the role of his younger second wife, giving great diva as the vain but insecure wicked stepmother who is forever peering into the magical “mirror” of the camera lens to confirm she is the greatest athlete in the land. A professional dancer fresh out of high school, Madlena Valdberga makes a magnetic Snow White, her Instagram-ready, pixie-faced beauty ideally suited to Pakalnina’s timely folk fable.
Beneath its contemporary surface trimmings, In the Mirror stays largely faithful to the original fairytale narrative. When the queen’s jealousy over her stepdaughter’s superior fitness scores drives her to murderous rivalry, Snow White narrowly escapes her wrath and flees deep into the woods, where she is adopted by a commune of hunky athletes all living together in a modernist glass cottage. As reimagined by Pakalnina, these seven “dwarves” are played by real-life bodybuilders, acrobats and trail bike riders, who all get to show off their skills on screen. The director also finds droll analogues for other classic plot elements, including the poisoned apple and glass casket.
Pakalnina and her cinematographer Gints Berzins consistently conjure up arrestingly surreal images: a team of strongmen lugging a burning car through a blizzard, a man asleep under a giant rock, the underside of a squirrel perched on a glass roof. Even when they make scant narrative sense, these quirky tableaux serve as dreamlike symbols in the spirit of Fellini, David Lynch or Sally Potter. Berzins also makes dynamic use of depth of field, shifting dramatic emphasis by switching from crisp to blurry focus. But most of the film’s striking close-ups were actually shot by the actors themselves using digital cameras mounted on a custom “selfie stick,” a bold new kind of collective collaboration.
The plot loses momentum a little in its latter stages, chiefly during a meandering detour about Snow White’s father being lured away to sea by a crew of poetry-spouting sailors. But even with the odd narrative wonk, In the Mirror remains a visually compelling and technically dazzling spectacle throughout. The throbbing electronic score by Paulius Kilbauskasand and Vygintas Kisevicius really comes to the fore during the finale, which Pakalnina pitches somewhere between performance art piece and rave party, ending her audacious fairytale remix on a hedonistic high.
Venue: Black Nights Film Festival, Tallinn
Production companies: Hargla Company, Just a Moment
Cast: Madlena Valdberga, Elza Leimane, Lauris Dzelzitis, Gatis Gaga, Kaspars Gods, Girts Krumins
Director, screenwriter, producer: Laila Pakalnina
Cinemtaographer: Gints Berzins
Editor: Ieva Veiveryte
Music: Paulius Kilbauskas, Vygintas Kisevicius
Sales compary: Oration, LA
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