A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness: Locarno Review

A Spell to Ward Off The Darkness - H 2013
An art film that tries but doesn't quite manage to entrance the viewer.

Musician Robert A. A. Lowe stars in artist-filmmakers Ben Rivers and Ben Russell's unapologetically arty triptych, filmed in Northern Europe.

LOCARNO -- An art film that’s as uncompromising as it is uncommercial, A Spell to Ward off the Darkness will prove fascinating for those willing to be carried away by its gorgeous sights and sounds of nature, of merrymaking and music and its free-association approach to narrative and meaning. Mainstream audiences are likelier to run for the hills -- some of which are beautifully photographed here.

This first feature-length collaboration of British artist-filmmaker Ben Rivers (Two Years at Sea) and his U.S. colleague and namesake, Ben Russell (Let Each One Go Where He May), premiered at Locarno and was shown at New York’s MoMA. It’s also part of the upcoming Toronto Film Festival’s Wavelengths lineup and should appeal to alternative art spaces and festivals.

Russell and Rivers earlier toured together with a program called We Can Not Exist In This World Alone, which combined shorts of each artist, also shot on 16mm, and their feature explores similar ethnographic themes and cinematic techniques. Spell’s essentially a triptych in which only one character is carried over from one section to the next: the eye-catching Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, a Brooklyn-based musician who often performs as Lichens. Lowe here incarnates a nameless man who wanders through a small, English-language commune in Estonia (identified, like the other places, only in the press notes, never onscreen).

It’s summer and people enjoy naked, post-sauna talks outside -- a remarkable sequence has a Finn tell a story about a sauna session in which everyone ended up with their finger in someone else’s behind -- or chill by the lake while chatting about the resources of the planet, “happy pessimism” and how parties are “temporary autonomous zones” (the latter two terms are coined by British artist Nick Turvey, the husband of director Joanna Hogg). Some of these shards of light-philosophical repartee, as well as a brief discussion of trance music, point to possible ways of understanding the film.

The second part shows Lowe survive on his own in the Finnish wilderness, with a long shot of a burning log cabin particularly hypnotic, and in the closing segment, he performs with a heavy-metal band in Norway. The seven-minute opening shot -- which shows a 360-degree view of a Nordic lake at dusk and seems designed to immediately get rid of viewers allergic to non-narrative cinema -- and the entire concert segment, which, though it lasts over half an hour, features just three songs and shots, all suggest that the two Bens are trying to come up with a form of cinema that is transcendent in its own right.

The filmmakers, who handled camera and editing as well as directorial duties, don’t quite succeed in making something fully immersive and continuously entrancing, perhaps also because the three sections are necessarily shoehorned into a linear structure, which makes cross-pollination between the different strands more difficult. But the material, often grainy and not always in focus, nonetheless offers enough material for long and animated post-screening discussions. The use of sound and the music is entirely in tune with the directors' ideas.

Venue: Locarno Film Festival (Out of Competition: Signs of Life)
Production companies: Rouge International, Black Hands, Arte
Cast: Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, Nick Turvey
Writer-Directors: Ben Rivers, Ben Russell
Producers: Nadia Turincev, Julie Gayet
Co-producer: Indrek Kasela
Directors of photography: Ben Rivers, Ben Russell
Music: Queenqueg, Robert A.A. Lowe
Editors: Ben Rivers, Ben Russell
Sales: Rouge International
No rating, 98 minutes