Reviews Short Narrative

Sempre Piu (2020) – 3 stars

Director: Dia Taylor

Writers: Dia Taylor & Bennie Wragg

Cast: Chloe Bruer-Jones, Michaela Celeste, Sam Browne

Running time: 10mins

Half-way into the second year of the Indy Film Library project, we’ve been critiquing independent filmmakers long enough to see a number of directors we previously reviewed return for a second stab at it. Some have been more successful than others – but usually I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the way our alumni have come on leaps and bounds since their earlier efforts.

Through all his directorial efforts, for example, Sam E. Flanagan’s people-management skills always stand out, as he has shown signs of learning how to build suspenseful stories that do justice to the excellent performances of his amateur casts. Meanwhile, though the quality and subject of his films vary drastically, Christopher Beauchamp always champions earnest, heartfelt messages that lend his films a much-needed air of sincerity – but he has started to demonstrate a growing understanding of how to take his time constructing narratives to support the themes he wants to champion.

In each case, there are certain cinematic finger-prints standing all over the work of these filmmakers, making it clear who created them – while visibly growing their capabilities in the process, and showing signs of a greater potential still to come. Sadly, such an arc was far less pronounced last year, when Dia Taylor followed up her 2017 film Blue with 2019 effort These Few Hours. Both were built around one-dimensional metaphorical premises which did not stand up to much scrutiny, while feeling rushed in their execution. It might be harsh to say These Few Hours was a step backward for the artists involved, but it certainly represented stagnation for them.

With that in mind, Sempre Piu represents something of a break-through moment for Taylor and her cohort of filmmakers. While it is still a long way from being perfect, it does demonstrate a number of welcome improvements in terms of narrative pacing, audio-visual work, and mise en scène – and everyone involved should take a great deal of heart from that moving forward.

Illustrating one of the ways Taylor’s filmmaking has grown, the story is simple yet focused, and patiently delivered. Premier violinist Daniella Donnadieu (Chloe Bruer-Jones) is at the top of her field – but she craves something more than her stardom and wealth can give her. On her search for this intangible artistic zenith, her egotistical pursuit of individual fulfilment causes her to pay the ultimate price, as she dives head first into a trap laid for her by enigmatic luthier Theron Boucher.

While Boucher’s intentions will have been obvious to connoisseurs of “long pork” from the moment our lead character sets foot in his shadowy study, Taylor and co-writer Bennie Wragg resist the temptation to instantly deliver the film’s finale. Instead, the scene is drawn out to try and ratchet up tension, while also giving us a good opportunity to revisit the action in the film’s first half that led us here.

Daniella channelling her inner miser to brush off a charity campaigner because he is unable to pay her for a non-profit gig; her contempt for the feelings of others when instigating an affair with her friend Ivy (Michaela Celeste) in broad view of her husband Luca (Sam Browne); her lack of gratitude for the praise her fan-base lavishes upon her; it all leads to a comeuppance which – while it may have been telegraphed from a mile off – is relatable, and makes narrative sense. The film’s ideas are paced evenly throughout the finished film to allow them more breathing-space than they found in either of Taylor’s previous films.

At the same time, many of the scenes and shots are allowed enough time to really land an impact on viewers in a way the hyper-constrained run-times of Blue and These Few Hours never got to. Because of this, the visual storytelling in Sempre Piu is so much more accomplished, having enabled us to pick up on moments of contrast, which serve to underline the plot and its core themes. Of particular note are the warm, golden images of Daniella entertaining an audience of adoring fans with her violin at the start of the film, and the chilling dolly shot of Boucher standing alone with a particularly ghoulish fiddle, surrounded by an altogether more morbid crowd. As an aside, it should also be mentioned in the case of the former scene, there have been so many films sent to us where they cram a small crowd into a room for a ‘big gig’, and proceed to film a flat shot which tells us exactly how many people are present. If you’re looking to put a concert in your low-budget film, and happen to be reading this, see Sempre Piu – this is how you do it.

That is not to say the film is without its problems, though. While the construction of the film’s world is much more holistic than Taylor’s earlier efforts, it is a little lacklustre on a number of fronts – particularly in relation to our lead character’s apparent fame. We know she is popular because she we see a lone poster, and we see her playing before an audience – but virtually every musician on the face of the planet could be construed as ‘famous’ by those standards. Meanwhile, she complains about how unfulfilling her money and notoriety are in what appears to be the least exclusive pub in Melbourne, propping up the bar and waiting for service shoulder to shoulder with the hoi polloi.

If we’re to be invited to believe she is some kind of world-conquering star, who is disconnected from her adoring public, then she needs to at least be sitting in a VIP section somewhere – while it might be worth her shrugging off the paparazzi or disdainfully using newspapers praising her work to line her cat-tray. If there’s a limited amount of time to show her up as the most aloof, ungrateful snob you ever saw – and she needs to be if she is to ‘earn’ the grizzly fate the film allots her – then we need as many visual cues as possible to be crammed into the screen in the opening scenes.

The transformation which Theron Boucher undergoes also utterly fails to cut the mustard. The full film is embedded above if you are intent on avoiding spoilers – but I find what I am about to write too obvious to label it as such. Boucher is obviously the man who pesters Daniella to support a local children’s charity; the fact he has shaved and removed his glasses and applied what appears to be the make-up from a Darth Sidious cosplay pack does not make this any less apparent. If Taylor and her team are asking their viewers to suspend their disbelief when it comes to the fact Daniella cannot recognise him, the two looks need to be miles apart.

The film also hinges largely on Boucher’s ability to be perceived as a threat – and it certainly appears that more could have been done to bring that coax that from the actor’s performance. A comically bad accent – a cruel and unsuccessful science experiment which appears to have spliced Herr Otto Flick and Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal Lecter together – does not help Boucher’s flat, low-tempo delivery, and as such his character does not differ nearly enough from the timid, socially inept charity promoter he presented himself as earlier.

Without being able to deliver the sufficient fear factor that such a plot demands, Sempre Piu still manages to fall a little flat – as I have previously seen with other shorts which attempted to tackle staple narratives of the horror genre. Fortunately, it still does enough to elevate itself above much of that chasing pack, to deliver a solid and competent arc which audiences will be able to follow, and take lessons from.

It might still be a little rough around the edges, but Sempre Piu has the one ingredient Dia Taylor’s previous work has been crying out for: progression. Having somewhat stalled between Blue and These Few Hours, this represents a great step forward for a filmmaker finally coming into her own. While there remains room for improvement, I feel less saddened than excited for the team behind Sempre Piu, because it is clearer now that there are bigger and better things to come from them, just over the horizon.

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