Remember to breathe.
The boldness of Tuva Novotny to choose to make her directorial debut a one-shot film of harrowing emotion cannot be understated. Her Blindsone [Blind Spot] takes us through the wringer as tragedy befalls a small, (seemingly) happy family without warning. These characters are distraught, confused, and falling to pieces as ambulances race and patience is tested before discovering new insights that may only provide more questions. And Novotny fearlessly traverses each new dramatic impulse, moving the camera from one to the other so we can be a fly on the wall for every revelation regardless of who onscreen is first to experience it. Love is on display in all its mysterious abstraction and unwavering power. But sometimes it’s not enough. Sometimes it clouds our vision from seeing devastating darkness.
Like love, this stylistic choice isn’t always enough either. For every unparalleled visual and sensory splendor a single-take experience conjures—we’re in the action, enveloped in this family’s heart-wrenching inability to do anything but wait and thus wonder what they could have done differently—is also the risk of giving too much time to the minutiae more traditional films cut away. I would be lying to dismiss the whole as a chore because there are some unforgettable scenes made stronger by the deliberate pacing preceding them, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t constantly frustrated by an inherent repetitiveness doing more harm than good. A fifteen-minute walk between two girls answering “Yeah” to every low-pressure teenage worry gets us where we’re going. It’s simply fourteen minutes too long.
It’s difficult to look past this reality because the first half of the film suffers greatly as a result. I get that we’re meant to watch Tea (Nora Mathea Øien) and Anna (Ellen Heyerdahl) engage in a trivial manner as a means to show how surfaces can easily hide underlying issues when we aren’t aware we should be looking for any, but that realization only occurs in hindsight. In the moment I found myself checking my watch, wondering what was happening. Were we being lulled into a state of ambivalence before a piano fell from the sky and crushed one of them? Are we supposed to fear the “bullies” they pass along the way as enemies who may turn around with machine guns and spray them with bullets?
Ultimately none of that happens. Novotny is forcing us to endure what Tea’s parents Maria (Pia Tjelta) and Anders (Anders Baasmo Christiansen) will later: namely the excruciating, anxiety-inducing state of uncertainty wherein patience wears thin because no one has any answers. Just like they must struggle with silent screams of pain as they await news from the nurse (Oddgeir Thune‘s Martin) and doctor (Carl Munck‘s Johan) assigned to their tragedy, we grow restless in the knowledge that Novotny could have saved so much time by skipping the inconsequential noise. She could have treated the opening act like any other film before letting the grief alone play out in real-time for maximum impact. We’d be invested and worried rather than annoyed it might have all been for naught.
And maybe that’s intentional. Maybe she wants us to be angry and distracted so we too can start making crazy hypotheses in our heads instead of waiting for things to unfold. But even if that were true and I could objectively applaud her for achieving the desired response from me, I cannot subjectively say I enjoyed it. I can’t say the ends justified the means because everything that happens after Anders arrives at the hospital would have been just as effective if the preceding forty-five-minute journey taken alongside Tea and Maria was whittled down to five. Tjelta’s performance is unnaturally good and absolutely devastating, but that much anguish tempered by nurse Martin’s saintly “I’m staying here with you” over and over and over again wears you thin.
It’s honest and authentic, but it’s still a movie. Whereas you could spend an hour consoling a loved one while another’s life hangs in the balance, understanding Maria’s pain is enough. Watching the handheld camera jump behind her as she runs down four flights of stairs to see the unimaginable is enough to earn empathy. Add five minutes of crying in the ambulance, ten of weakness in the hospital hallway, and five more of quiet contemplation and we’re suddenly beyond tired. Thankfully Novotny knows this is a lot to ask of her audience and does shift focus onto Martin for a bit and then Anders, but the transitions happen too late. I kept checking out and back in when I should’ve been invested every step of the way.
So while there are undoubtedly some sequences that will stick with you long after the credits roll, those pieces are stronger than the whole. There’s a bona fide winner of a forty-minute short here that’s been expanded for an admittedly awesome cinematic technique rather than because it could carry the extra weight. Maybe I would feel differently if something impactful occurred at the start to pique interest straight away, but having to wait as long as I did for that initial moment of panic only undercut its power. You want to gasp in shock when “it” happens and yet I found myself saying “Finally,” forever at arm’s length to watch what’s next rather than experience it. A one-shot needs sustained action, not a promise as it belatedly arrives.
At the very least, though, Novotny shows she has the chops to make her transition from actor to director a regular occurrence. Blind Spot is a technical achievement with stunning performances that prove her proficiency with both those aspects of the medium. And the TIFF write-up comparing the result to Dogme 95 style isn’t wrong—it just highlights the finished piece as more experiment than film molded to the best of its abilities. To follow a formal manifesto like that is to limit yourself and so is wanting to capture a single-take whether or not the choice is best for each scene separately. I hate feeling manipulated, but I want an editor to find the rhythm within this cut that augments its strengths. Right now the lulls are too much.
courtesy of TIFF