'Mosquito State': Film Review | Venice 2020

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VENICE FILM FESTIVAL

Beau Knapp in 'Mosquito State'

Cronenberg meets Kafka.

An influential Wall Street data analyst is overpowered by a plague of mosquitoes in U.S.-Polish director Filip Jan Rymsza's pointed allegory for the 2007 financial crisis.

Atonement stings in Filip Jan Rymsza's chilly Mosquito State, an elegant but increasingly tortured allegory for the unraveling of one unwitting architect of the 2007 subprime mortgage crisis. This obsessive fever dream opens with a predatory insect's eye view of high-roller privilege then multiplies into a nightmarish infestation before vengefully claiming its sacrifice, in a poetic surrender that evokes Virginia Woolf. Juiced up with nods to Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis and to classic David Cronenberg bug-outs, much of it set to insidious techno beats, this is commandingly creepy psycho-horror, even if its forbidding narrative loses momentum.

The title sequence, designed by distinguished graphics veteran Dan Perri, is an attention-grabbing stunner. We witness in queasy microscopic close-up the four stages of development of the common mosquito, from egg through larva to pupa, and finally, to adult, or imago, intercut with Victorian-looking biological illustrations detailed with identifying notes. The H.R. Giger-esque suggestion of alien birth is profoundly disturbing. Those four developmental stages also punctuate the story, in painted title cards.

The mother of this bizarro thriller's mosquito millions ascends through an underground drainage system, travels along a New York City street and enters the window of a fancy event space during a party for a successful brokerage firm headed by suave European macher Edward Werner (Olivier Martinez). The bug surveys the scene before settling on the pasty neck of Richard Boca (Beau Knapp), a poorly socialized data analyst described by Edward as his "golden goose." That moment of initial impact is heralded as "The Blood Meal."

Richard has synthesized a numbers system called "Honeybee," based on colony collapse disorder. He calls bees "predictors, mystery-solvers." Continuing with the symbolism, the English-language script by Polish writer-director Rymsza and Mario Zermeno ushers in a halting love interest completing her studies in water sustainability. Financing her education by running an upscale wine bar, Lena (Charlotte Vega) is a guest at the party; after some awkward flirtation, she ends up back at Richard's sprawling minimalist penthouse with spectacular views overlooking Central Park.

The knowing use of sterile spatial dynamics here and elsewhere by production designer Marek Warszewski is both stylish and descriptive, as is the stealthy grace of Eric Koretz's camerawork.

Richard is a teetotaler who collects high-end wine in a vast cellar for investment purposes. When Lena coaxes him to try a bottle, it's corked. Soon after, his regular 4 a.m. alarm goes off and he freaks out, scaring her off. As he retreats to his bed, the mosquito that stowed away under his collar finds a bedside glass of water in which to breed, and the colonization of his home is set in motion.

With more literal-mindedness than subtlety, Rymsza drops TV footage in the background throughout to provide social context — commentary on Rupert Murdoch's use of his media holdings to push his political agenda; Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama squaring off in the Democratic presidential primaries; Donald Trump hosting The Apprentice; the hunt for Osama bin Laden; even a nationwide alert not to leave standing water lying around due to a mosquito outbreak. With West Nile Virus a threat during that period, it's not difficult to see where the metaphor was, ahem, hatched.

As mosquito bites transform Richard into the Elephant Man via grotesque swelling on his face and body, he starts offering his naked limbs for the home invaders to feast upon. But he continues to visit the firm's Financial District offices, where wild market fluctuations not foreseen in his system cause him to panic. His arrogant jock colleague Beau (Jack Kesy) laughs off his concerns with growing scorn, and Edward, in his palatial office, is similarly dismissive. Richard's urging to cease trading goes unheeded.

Weird visions further destabilize him as he starts welcoming hungry new swarms of mosquito hatchlings, like a master of the underworld. Only his assistant, Sally (Audrey Wasilewski), seems alarmed, notably when he tries to convince her that the drone of mosquitoes buzzing on a baby monitor is the sound of 10,000 market trades a minute.

Anyone anticipating a lucid translation of the convoluted mechanisms and chicanery that led to the financial crisis in 2007-08 like, say, Margin Call or The Big Short, should look elsewhere. Either Rymsza rightly assumes we know all that or doesn't care. His interests are more abstract, with Richard initially attempting some level of control over his burgeoning insect domain ("Finally, some order and obedience!") before succumbing to its might in a martyred trance.

Shuffling around like an increasingly disfigured zombie, Knapp commits fully to the hideous spectacle of a man steadily beaten by merciless nature. Both the body prosthetics and VFX work conjuring the waves of airborne creatures infesting his apartment are top-notch. But as impressive as it all is in terms of craft and icy haute style, there's never much incentive to care about Richard or his fate. As his situation worsens and his hold on reality disintegrates, the storytelling also loosens its bite, too often making way for what seem like music-video interludes with techno tunes or a solemn Schubert song-cycle movement, seamlessly integrated into Cezary Skubiszewski's coolly symphonic, string-heavy score.

Sure, it's a worthwhile subject for surreal dramatic treatment that as the Dow plummets and market chaos takes hold, someone has to pay. And a human sacrifice dominated by a plague of near-biblical proportions, well, why not? But even when he makes a selfless gesture to Lena to rid himself of his tarnished gains, Richard remains a remote figure, his tragedy void of pathos.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Production company: Royal Road Entertainment
Cast: Beau Knapp, Charlotte Vega, Jack Kesy, Olivier Martinez, Audrey Wasilewski
Director: Filip Jan Rymsza
Screenwriters: Filip Jan Rymsza, Mario Zermeno
Producers: Filip Jan Rymsza, Wlodzimierz Widerhaus, Alyssa Swanzey

Executive producers: Olga Kagan, Carla Rosen-Vacher, Al Di, Jon Anderson
Director of photography: Eric Koretz

Production designer: Marek Warszewski
Costume designer:
Katarzyna Lewinska
Music: Cezary Skubiszewski
Editors: Andrew Hafitz, Bob Murawski, Wojciech Janas
Sound designers: Mateusz Adamczyk, Sebastian Witkowski
VFX supervisor: Maks Naporowski
Casting: Mary Vernieu, Raylin Sabo
101 minutes