‘Nightlife’ (‘Nocno zivljenje’): Karlovy Vary Review

Nightlife still 1-H 2016
Courtesy of Vertigo
A minor-key but haunting detour into the shadows.

Sinister real events in Slovenia inspired this noir-ish Eurodrama, winner of the best director prize at Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.

Although it is partly based on a macabre true story that could easily have been worked up into a sensational murder mystery, Nightlife takes a more elliptical approach with its subtle ruminations on fear and loathing in modern Europe. Writer-helmer Damjan Kozole, best known internationally for his Toronto-launched prostitution drama Slovenian Girl (2009), claims he intended his new feature to metaphorically mirror recent upsurges in social division and far-right politics across the globe. Such parallels may be tenuous, but this quietly engrossing lo-fi thriller should generate further festival interest and possible niche theatrical bookings following its world premiere at Karlovy Vary last week, where it won best director honors for Kozole.

The setting is contemporary Ljubljana, capital city of Slovenia. Lawyer Milan (Jernej Sugman) has just won a controversial legal case on a technicality, a victory which leaves him morally troubled. Though the full facts remain opaque, his unseen client is clearly a dubious character who got lucky, putting a fresh strain on already frosty relations between Milan and his wife, Lea (Pia Zemljic). Heading out again on a vaguely defined business errand, he disappears into darkness.

Later that night, a group of young partygoers discover Milan lying semi-naked at the edge of a busy urban highway, covered in bites and cuts, barely conscious and drenched in blood. When paramedics arrive, they discover a large strap-on dildo at the scene. Summoned to visit Milan in the hospital as his life hangs in the balance, Lea struggles to uncover the truth in the face of confusion, shame and bureaucratic bluster. Fearing for her husband’s reputation, she steals and hides the sex toy, frantically bargaining with implacable police and indifferent doctors to keep the embarrassing details secret.

The initial inspiration for Nightlife was a notorious real scandal in Slovenia in 2010, when the body of well-connected doctor Saso Baricevic was found in a snowy yard with a giant wooden dildo beside him, having been apparently mauled to death by his own dogs. Lurid media speculation inevitably followed about Baricevic’s exotic sexual tastes, dragging his posthumous reputation through the mud. Kozole and co-writer Ognjen Svilicic depart significantly from the facts in their slender script, but Slovenians and Balkan news-watchers will recognize the source material, and the implied critique of prurient tabloid culture.

Nightlife is primarily a single-hander vehicle for Zemljic, whose mostly wordless performance is a minimalist master class in emotional intensity, forever hinting at seismic tremors of anguish behind her mask of chilly composure. Repeatedly framed in close-up profile, ebony hair swept back over piercing eyes and porcelain cheekbones, her ageless face suggests a grieving widow in an Old Master painting. Behind her, cinematographer Miladin Colakovic paints a noir-ish canvas of ice-blue hospital corridors and lonely nocturnal streets. Think Edward Hopper with a digital camera.

Focused almost entirely on Lea’s agonized journey over a single night, Kozole keeps the story intimate and personal, but also frustratingly small. While he provides plenty of creeping suspense and queasy dread, he purposely stints on character context and backstory, leaving the audience to speculate on how Milan sustained his horrific injuries. This non-committal approach will leave some viewers feeling cheated. Nightlife is haunted and haunting, atmospheric and absorbing, but it ultimately feels like an incomplete picture, the opening act to a deeper and darker drama.

Venue: Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
Production companies: Vertigo, Sisters and Brother Mitevski, SCCA pro.ba
Cast: Pia Zemljic, Jernej Sugman, Marko Mandic, Peter Musevski, Petre Arsovski, Emil Kozole
Director: Damjan Kozole
Screenwriters: Damjan Kozole, Ognjen Svilicic
Producer: Danijel Hocevar
Cinematographer: Miladin Colakovic
Editors: Jurij Moskon, Ivo Trajkov
Music: Kostov, Silence
Sales company: Vertigo, Ljubljana

Not rated, 85 minutes