Out of Bounds (Labrador): Cannes Review

Its distinctive setting and gentle touch with potentially dour material make this a quietly compelling first feature.

Danish director Frederikke Aspock, a 2004 Cannes Cinefondation short film winner, moves into features with her first effort: a cinematic chamber play.

A 2004 Cannes Cinefondation short film award winner, Danish director Frederikke Aspock makes a confident move into features with Out of Bounds. Dramatically low-key and somewhat leisurely even at a lean 72 minutes, the film nonetheless benefits from its evocative sense of place and striking ability to channel elemental and environmental forces into tricky human relationships.

Aspock calls the film a cinematic chamber play, and with just three characters, a single setting, and an intense focus on psychological conflict over physical action, the austere drama certainly fits that description. Yet while the bleak location and blistering weather plant expectations of unyielding Scandinavian severity, Aspock (an MFA filmmaking graduate from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts) brings a delicate touch, even to some of the more emotionally freighted moments in Daniel Dencik’s screenplay.

The story covers the brief abortive visit from Denmark of Stella (Stephanie Leon) and her journalist boyfriend, Oskar (Carsten Bjornlund), to see her father for the first time in some years. A well-regarded but reclusive abstract painter, Nathan (Jakob Eklund) lives in a no-frills cottage on the shore of Gotland, a remote, rocky Swedish island in the Baltic Sea, with only his dog for company. (The film’s more enigmatic domestic title is Labrador.)

Oskar has vague ideas of coaxing an interview out of Nathan, but the artist’s unnerving mix of blunt candor and prickly evasiveness quickly nixes that hope. Nathan has chosen to withdraw from the world to this punishing outpost, and Aspock draws considerable texture out of the awkwardness of citified Oskar’s first encounter with his unwelcoming host. The communication shorthand of father and daughter also contributes to make Oskar feel like an outsider, competing for Stella’s affection.

Into this atmosphere of unease, Stella drops the news that she’s pregnant. Oskar has mixed feelings about becoming a father, and Nathan seizes on the younger man’s uncertainty to create friction between the couple. But while Nathan’s wilderness years have given him the suspiciousness and cunning of a lone wolf, Oskar is served by his journalistic instincts. He starts asking uncomfortable questions about Nathan’s late wife and his annual absences abroad, shaking the family tree.

While these revelations might have been pumped into thundering melodrama in other hands, Aspock and Dencik handle them with economy and restraint. The actors skillfully navigate the shifting dynamics among their characters and the director deftly exploits the tension and threat of violence that hang in the air, quite literally so when ravens start circling overhead. The film deserves credit for declining to tie up the experience into a neat takeaway lesson, instead acknowledging that messy, complicated relationships have a way of infecting everyone around them.

This is a modest feature that takes perhaps a little too long to establish a binding tone, but it’s absorbing and dramatically satisfying on its own terms. Aspock has an invaluable storytelling collaborator in cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jonck. In a somber shooting style marked by stark compositions, he captures the brooding, lonely landscape, battered by gelid waves, icy winds and snow, as a place where true feelings are harder to hide.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Sales: TrustNordisk
Cast: Carsten Bjornlund, Stephanie Leon, Jakob Eklund
Director: Frederikke Aspock
Screenwriter: Daniel Dencik

Producer: Thomas Heinesen
Director of photography: Magnus Nordenhof Jonck
Production designer: Thomas Karlsen
Music: Rasmus Bille Bahncke
Costume designer: Louize Nissen
Editor: Martin Schade
No rating; 72 minutes