Blind: Sundance Review

Blind Sundance Film Still - H 2014

Blind Sundance Film Still - H 2014

An ambitiously constructed screenplay translates into a film that's easier to admire than to love.

The directorial debut of Norwegian screenwriter Eskil Vogt ("Oslo, August 31st") stars Ellen Dorrit Petersen and Henrik Rafaelsen.

A Norwegian woman who has lost her sight prefers to stay within the confines of her own home, memories and thoughts in Blind, the skillful if a tad cold directorial debut of screenwriter Eskil Vogt (Joachim Trier’s Reprise and Oslo, August 31st).

Though the film’s structure makes it very hard to warm to the protagonist until very late into the proceedings, Vogt finally manages to not only suggest what the world of a blind person must be like in terms of the countless everyday impracticalities but also what it could do to the inner life of a thirty-something woman who’s married and would’ve liked to have children. The cerebral screenplay acrobatics -- U.S. critics will probably be using the word Kaufmanesque a lot -- will wow some but leave others, well, cold and it’ll take a passionate distributor to drum up significant audience interest for this Sundance world premiere.

The blind Ingrid (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) opens the film in voice-over, conjuring up the image of a tree before the camera shows what she’s talking about. “Places are harder to remember,” she continues, describing how it helps if she’s frequented them often before she lost her eyesight. The film then shows at length what should in theory be a facile domestic task: making some tea and then sitting down to drink it. Already, Vogt is implying with the minute way of observing the action that it pays for the viewer to pay close attention to details.

Audiences will need to do just that, as the narrative, much of it accompanied by Ingrid’s voice-over, keeps introducing new material that’ll inspire double takes or necessitate backtracking through the story.

Ingrid introduces us to the lonely and somewhat portly Einar (Marius Kolbenstvedt), who is addicted to fetish-dominated porn (shown in all its explicit glory) though, as Ingrid remarks, “the Internet can’t tell him how it feels to touch those bodies.” Einar often spies on the lonely young woman who lives in the building across the street, Elin (Vera Vitali), a divorced Swedish mother whose shared custody of her child has made her a prisoner of Norway. In an early bravura sequence, Einar provides the sound to the mute image he sees of Elin in her flat by switching to the same TV channel and eating the same snack. It’s an early indication of the importance of sound in this story narrated by a blind woman.

There’s also the married architect, Morten (Henrik Rafaelsen), qualified by his wife as extremely boring, though apparently not boring enough to secretly communicate with Elin via Internet chat. The film’s first half toggles between the stories of these three characters and the narrator, as it gradually emerges that Ingrid, when home alone, has taken to writing stories and that not everything we see is necessarily real, as a meeting of old student buddies Morten and Einar at a café suggests when, suddenly, the background behind one of the characters suggests he’s been miraculously transported to another place though the conversation between the two simply seems to continue.

It’s through visual as well as audio cues such as these that Vogt first hints at and then slowly reveals how everything is connected and his overarching theme is nothing less than the function of fiction in our lives and how the lives of (fictional) others make us see our own more clearly. The theme’s there for the taking and the screenplay’s certainly masterfully constructed and even has some humor as well as plenty of drama but it also has one major disadvantage: once the audience realizes that not everything is necessarily real, any emotional involvement with any of the (potentially fictional) situations or characters is relegated to the back burner, turning the film into a somewhat clinical narrative puzzle until all the cards are on the table.

Ingrid’s complex and flawed psyche finally does come into view in the home stretch but it feels like Vogt’s kept his narrative cards too close to his chest for too long. It’s a shame, especially because Petersen (Troubled Water) is terrific in a very tricky role. She's ably supported by her three fellow cast members, of which Rafaelsen (The Almost Man) is the standout in another role that has to find the character's humanity in small details.

As in the films of Joachim Trier that Vogt co-wrote, the technical elements are an integral part of the storytelling, from the sound work and production design to the soft, milky lighting and always interesting compositions of Greek cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis (Dogtooth, Attenberg).

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Dramatic Competition)
Production companies: Motlys, Lemming Film
Cast: Ellen Dorrit Petersen, Henrik Rafaelsen, Vera Vitali, Marius Kolbenstvedt
Writer-Director: Eskil Vogt
Producers: Hans-Jorgen Osnes, Signe Endresen
Co-producers: Derk-Jan Warrink, Leontine Petit, Joost de Vries
Director of photography: Thimios Bakatakis
Production designer: Jorgen Stangebye Larsen
Music: Henk Hofstede
Costume designer: Ellen Daehli Ystehede
Editor: Jens Christian Fodstad
Sales: Versatile
No rating, 96 minutes.