Pål Sletaune’s Babycall is a hall of ghostly mirrors and fantasy reflections as a mother and victim of domestic abuse tries to keep a fracturing reality together.
In The Mouth Of Madness by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
The art house horror is a curious beast. Japan, France and Spain have all carved out their own particular niches; J-Horror hitting the mainstream with the eerie locations, ghostly intrusions and single-mother vulnerability of Hideo Nakata’s Ringu and Dark Water while France has taken on the genre horrors of Hollywood with its devil-take-the-hindmost slasher Deep In The Woods, fear-of-the-backwoods Ils or zombie fright-fest La Horde and Spain combines dredging up the past with more phantasmagorical horrors in Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth or J.A. Bayona’s The Orphanage or the pseudo-snuff realism of Jaume Balagueró’s REC. Now though, following the successes of Tomas Alfredson’s Let The Right One In and comedy horrors Rare Exports and Troll Hunter, it’s Scandinavia‘s turn to slash and earn.
And Pål Sletaune’s Babycall is an intriguing successor to the moody vampiric charm of Låt Den Rätte Komma In with its tale of domestic abuse victim Anna and her son Anders. Starring Noomi Rapace as the fearful mother coming to terms with life in a new apartment and a new city after her ex-husband tried to kill their son by throwing him out of the window. The tone is one of domestic realism and post-trauma seriousness as Anna tries to give her son the freedom to sleep in his own room and attend school. Noomi Rapace turns in a blinding performance in her razor-sharp portrait of a woman blighted by past woes, her manic nervousness and suspicious protectiveness all-consuming as she ventures into the local superstore to buy a baby monitor. It’s there she meets slow-burn love interest Helge, a shy and ageing mummy’s boy precisely and charmingly embodied by Kristoffer Joner.
Despite Anna’s persecution mania and visions of car-lot lakes in the forest at the bottom of the garden, the two misfits slowly come together, Anna in desperate need of a friend she can talk to, confide in and feel safe with. At night, she hears another boy in the block screaming over the baby monitor and sees parents in her building carrying away corpse-shaped sleeping bags and digging up patches of woodland, but Anna can no longer tell if her visions are real or fantasy. At school, Anders makes a shadowy friend, a lank and wan ghost of a boy who mysteriously appears on the other side of doorways. And it’s a clever diegetic curve ball, neatly concealing the truth behind this labyrinth of fantasy, madness and spectral visions.
Above all though, with its three-fold story of child abuse, Babycall is a film about mothers and sons. Helge visits his adored mother in hospital daily, wrangling desperately with the decision to turn off her respirator. But it’s also hinted at that Helge’s the victim of family violence himself; a Stockholm syndrome cocktail of suppressed anger and involuntary love. Anna and Anders’ relationship is deliciously fragile – the protective ghost son and the frenetically protective mother. The fact that her reality is a web of past-clenching visions lends a tragic blindness to her story, fumbling in the dark for a life pieced together from fear and memory.
Almost wholly presented through Anna’s eyes, Babycall is an involving game of distinguishing fact from fiction. And while the side-swipe revelation that her son Anders died two years ago at her ex-husband’s hands is unexpected and shocking, it’s a reveal that, combined with Anna’s death, leaves the rest of the film to crumple like a falling house of cards. There are some subsequent scenes of Helge piecing together Anna’s clues leading to the dead boy’s shallow grave and his parents’ arrest, giving some sense and sensibility to Anna’s existence, but with all the previous story relegated to figments of Anna’s imagination, and without the reality of Helge’s refractory gaze, there’s no way of telling what’s real and what’s not.
Like a shimmering lake at the centre of an overgrown forest, Babycall is a circular mirage of motherhood and madness, broken with a bittersweet posthumous victory for the girl gone mad, the sole witness to a crime she can’t be sure even happened. It’s a pleasant enough journey through a forest of circuitous paths and diegetic dead-ends, but as the final credits roll and the veil of disenchantment descends, I can’t be sure if it’s a glimmering lake or a car park.
Babycall is released on 30th March 2012 in the UK