'Dark Fortune' ('Finisteres gluck'): Film Review | Tallinn 2016

DARK FORTUNE - still 2 - H 2016
Courtesy of Triluna Films
Darkness on the edge of Zurich.

Swiss director Stefan Haupt worked with his actress wife Eleni Haupt on this prize-winning literary adaptation about the aftershocks of a family tragedy.

Writer-director Stefan Haupt earned festival prizes galore with his 2014 docudrama The Circle, which Switzerland nominated as its official foreign-language Oscar submission. More formally conventional, Haupt’s follow-up project is a measured, dutiful adaptation of Dark Fortune, Lukas Hartmann’s 2011 novel about a tragedy that devastates one family and shakes up another. The material may be somber but the characters are engaging, the performances strong and the overall treatment elegant.

Following its international premiere in competition at Black Nights Film Festival in Tallinn last week, where it won the Ecumenical Jury prize, Dark Fortune has the kind of solid middlebrow prestige that should secure further fest bookings. Already released domestically, it could also snag niche theatrical slots outside German-speaking markets based on Haupt’s track record and positive advance word. The film makes its U.S. debut with one-off screenings in Los Angeles and San Francisco in early February.

On the day of a solar eclipse, tragedy strikes a Swiss family during a road trip from Zurich to the French border region of Alsace. In the midst of a heated argument, which Haupt only conveys in teasingly impressionistic terms, their car crashes in a mountain tunnel. Four out of five family members are killed, including both parents. Only the youngest son survives, 8-year-old Yves, impressively played by moon-faced cherub Noe Ricklin.

Later that night, psychologist Eliane Hess (Eleni Haupt, the director’s wife) receives an emergency summons to visit Yves in hospital. As she struggles to break the shock news, the boy's aunt and grandmother arrive to stake rival claims on custody. The family’s conflicted history becomes a battleground, with ominous hints that the father was violently abusive, and may even have deliberately crashed the car in a vengeful murder-suicide plot.

Meanwhile, Eliane develops a deepening maternal bond with Yves, moving him into her suburban home for a few weeks while the custody case is settled. The boy’s arrival exacerbates long-running antagonism between the psychologist and her two daughters, especially sulky teenage rebel Alice (Chiara Carla Bar). This in turn forces Eliane to confront painful memories of her own tragic losses and broken relationships. Yves makes tensions worse by refusing food, throwing post-traumatic tantrums and conducting eerie late-night conversations with his dead brother, hinting at Sixth Sense-style supernatural subplots that never materialize.

Studiously avoiding melodrama, Dark Fortune slowly accumulates real emotional force as a nuanced rumination on guilt and grief, love and mercy. Haupt subtly implies that Eliane and Yves need each other for mutual forgiveness, and that the destruction of one troubled family can help heal another. Overly glib and dramatically convenient, perhaps, but these points are never labored. A recurring visual motif of Biblical paintings also hints at a Christian religious subtext, especially the final scene in front of a crucifixion triptych, but once again this feels more open-ended than heavy-handed.

A classy and engrossing package overall, Dark Fortune reels viewers in with slow-burn suspense and psychological complexity. Haupt's intense lead performance, a study in brittle professionalism masking deep trauma, stands out in a high-caliber cast. Tomas Korber’s spare, hymnal score and cinematographer Tobias Dengler’s luminous, autumnal landscape shots add to the general air of superior craftsmanship. On a more niche-interest note, casual students of the German language may also enjoy the ripe, slang-heavy, thickly accented dialect deployed by Alice and her teenage pals, which lends the film a distinctly Swiss flavor.

Venue: Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival
Production company: Triluna Film
Cast: Eleni Haupt, Noe Ricklin, Elisa Pluss, Chiara Carla Bar, Martin Hug
Director-screenwriter: Stefan Haupt
Producer: Rudolf Santschi
Cinematographer: Tobias Dengler
Editor: Christof Schertenleib
Music: Tomas Korber, Fremdton Kollektiv
Sales company: Wide Management, Paris

Not rated, 114 minutes