'Pretenders': Film Review | San Sebastian 2016

PRETENDERS - Still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of San Sebastian International Film Festival
Estonian ersatzery.

Vallo Toomla's Estonia-Lithuania-Latvia co-production competed for the $55,000 New Directors prize at the Spanish festival.

A stylishly chilly Baltic drama of casual deception, Estonia-Lithuania-Latvia co-production Pretenders (Teesklejad) itself proves rather less than meets the eye. And while feature-debutant director Vallo Toomla skillfully deploys many of his trade's tools, he's ultimately let down by deficiencies in fellow newcomers Andris Feldmanis and Livia Ulman's talk-heavy screenplay.

Occasional echoes of Ruben Ostlund's international hit Force Majeure will prove both a help and a hindrance to this good-looking affair's reception on the festival circuit. As in Ostlund's snow-dry Swedish comedy of marital unease, the focus here is on a handsome, seemingly confident 30-something man — struggling journalist Juhan (Priit Voigemast) — whose fundamental weaknesses of character becomes painfully apparent to his other half.

Juhan and his longtime girlfriend Anna (Mirtel Pohla) — in the aftermath of her abortion — repair for a spell of house-sitting at a more successful friend's luxurious beachfront pad. Frictions repeatedly arise over trivial matters; compulsive smoker Juhan's milquetoast streak is hinted at when the pair go for a swim in the chilly sea and see two strangers going through their things on the distant shore. "I'm not going to play the hero over a few towels," Juhan sniffs.

Events take an unexpected turn with the chance arrival of another couple, Triin (Mari Abel) and Erik (Meelis Rammeld), whom Anna and Juhan invite into "their" home after Triin injures her foot on the rocks. Passing off the property as their own is the first step in a chain of pretense, role-play and mind-games which eventually yields drastic, violent consequences.

Inescapably theatrical in its setup, Pretenders "opens up" as a film by means of Erik Pollumaa's poised widescreen cinematography, Eva-Maria Gramakovski's production design — subtly stylish interior decor tips abound — and especially Vladimir Golovnitski's sound, with its unobtrusively atmospheric modulations of waves and wind.

Golovnitski, like editor Danielius Kokanauskis, is a regular collaborator of Ukrainian maestro Sergei Loznitsa, and his audioscapes successfully conjure the sense of an unpredictable world lurking beyond the confines of the coolly calibrated frame. That unpredictability takes concrete form in the ambiguous figures of Triin and Erik, explicitly identified as coming from a slightly lower social class than the relatively affluent Juhan and Anna — who are themselves positioned as envious of their absent friends' evident material success.

Feldmanis, Ulman and Toomla take their time in establishing mood and character, to a patience-taxing degree. The intriguing possibility is at one point raised that Anna and Juhan are actually pretending to pretend, and are actually the real owners of the house, but this is soon dropped. And when the plot does finally pick up pace during the final reel, the wheels come flying off the wagon as a Bergman-esque, Haneke-inflected study of troubled modern relationships takes an ill-advised and clumsily handled horror-thriller turn.

A last-gasp twist, which feels like a somewhat desperate screenwriting contrivance, further compounds the sense of time unprofitably spent. The chief saving grace throughout is Pohla, who resembles an eyecatching combination of Cameron Diaz and Jessica Chastain, and savors every angular contour of the picture's only truly three-dimensional creation.

Production companies: Amrion, Locomotive Productions, Studio Uljana Kim
Cast: Mirtel Pohla, Priit Voigemast, Meelis Rammeld, Mari Abel
Director: Vallo Toomla
Screenwriters: Andris Feldmanis, Livia Ulman
Producers: Uljana Kim, Riina Sildos, Roberts Vinovskis 
Cinematographer: Erik Pollumaa
Production designer: Eva-Maria Gramakovski
Costume designer: Kristiina Ago
Editor: Danielius Kokanauskis
Sound: Vladimir Golovnitski
Composer: Karlis Auzans
Venue: San Sebastian Film Festival (New Directors)
Sales: Wide, Paris

In Estonian

102 minutes