Director: Dave Grønvall-Petersen
Writer: Dave Grønvall-Petersen
Cast: Martha Bach, Afshin Firouzi, Michael Robdrup
Running time: 26mins
The game of tennis has an enduring fascination for filmmakers. In the past, particularly male directors, think Anderson, Hall, Hitchcock, have used the device of a tennis match to insert different metaphors into their narratives. It is, also, hard to forget Monty Python’s imagining of a Sam Peckinpah tennis movie – a match on Wimbledon Centre Court portrayed as a blood-spattered festival of gore. It is easy to see the attraction.
The look of intense concentration on the face of the player as they crouch to receive service contrasted with the blur of movement of their opponent as they serve, often followed by a frenetic exchange of shots has made tennis a wildly successful televised sport and makes for great cinema. The game’s vocabulary of reception, service, deuce, fault, and love bind the physical action with a quasi-legal antique politeness. Tennis is the aspirational sport for those of us who buy in to the myth of social mobility – so it makes for an easy signpost to show we are watching characters who are achievers and on the up in this world of ours.
And then, there is the net – dividing the court and separating the players – full of all sorts of cinematographic potential. It is the net that Dave Grønvall-Petersen uses as the central motif in their elegant and beautiful portrayal of a strain in a pair of lovers’ relationships – the net is That Thing Between Us.
The film opens with a shot of a net on a tennis court with a ball passing slowly over, back, and forth. The camera pans out and we see a mixed doubles match in progress. We are introduced to David (Afshin Firouzi) and Pernille (Martha Bach) two thirty-somethings. The couple are losing the match. David is tetchy and being somewhat of a dick about losing whilst Pernille is the reasonable adult who is trying to put the game in perspective – enjoy it and have fun. They lose the match. We see them returning home. Their apartment is tastefully decorated and tells us in bold letters that the couple are young professionals – it is also immaculately clean. Maybe it is having lived my life in bohemian households where housework has not been the highest of priorities, but I am frequently amazed at how hygienically clean and tidy many film sets are. That Thing Between Us is no exception – not a dirty cup or a post-it notes out of place.
As the dialogue between the couple develops, we learn that David’s over investment in being successful at tennis is a real problem in the couple’s relationship. They settle down in bed for a somewhat frigid night. We hear the alarm clock sound – followed by quotidian scenes of getting ready for work. But then the director plays a trump card. As David is eating his breakfast cereal, he falls asleep and his face slumps into the bowl. Pernille comes into the kitchen and, when she approaches David, she, also, falls asleep and slumps to the floor. It is fairly easy for the viewer to work out that they are suffering from narcolepsy with cataplexic symptoms. Given the leads that Grønvall-Petersen has given us in the script it is also reasonably simple for us to work out the causation: David’s obsession with winning tennis matches has produced an emotional reaction in Pernille that is so strong that it triggers a cataplexic reaction when they come within a certain distance of each other.
The rest of the film shows us the coping strategies that the couple devise to try and get on with their lives and which culminate in an attempt to heal their condition. Along the way, there are some wonderful scenes. I particularly enjoyed the visit to the doctor, with a fine cameo from Michael Robdrup as the bemused medic. There is a stand-out scenario, cinematographically, when the couple are experimenting to see whether they can come close to each other outside of the apartment – it is filmed on a riverbank in a big city and the couple look as though they are about to engage in a duel, it is stunningly well shot and endearingly atmospheric.
To fall into a narcoleptic state at frequent intervals during a film is a tough call but Bach and Firouzi carry it off exceptionally well. Firouzi emerging from the kitchen, after the first attack, with milk and cereal splattered over his face with a bemused yet solemn expression was a fine piece of acting. One of the key strengths of the movie, is Bach’s and Firouzi’s portrayals of Pernille’s and David’s relationship – they certainly inhabit the characters and make the viewer want them to succeed in finding a solution to the Problem. I liked the way that Firouzi’s character grew from being an all-round pain into someone the viewer might like and respect. They are aided by a subtle and gently funny script from Grønvall-Petersen.
I enjoyed the pranks that we are given, the sort of tricks that lovers play on each other. Any woman or trans person who has ever been chided for taking too long in the bathroom will love Pernille’s make-up joke. Grønvall-Petersen evidently got a first-class team together for the project. The cinematography by Oscar Degn Hald is excellent throughout. There is some fine editing by Jarivan Ahmad – in particular, the mash-up of the frenetic exchange of shots in the tennis match at the start and the quirky, jumpy footage of David preparing breakfast. The director uses an assortment of creative commons tracks for the music soundtrack, they are all well-chosen, apposite and add to the atmospherics.
The only issue I had with the film was a pretty minor one. In the opening tennis match scene, it is pretty obvious that Bach has never played tennis to any standard. The scene calls for Pernille to serve, and for her service to hit David in the back – something which is supposed to heighten David’s fuming indignation at losing. Bach’s service is a gentle pat with no spin or swerve and softly bounces off David – a total dud. This simple fact somewhat undermined the credibility of the competitive ethos that we were being asked to believe in, making it a little harder to really understand David’s disappointment at losing. However, this does not seriously detract from a fine achievement from director, cast and crew – That Thing Between Us is independent cinema at pretty near its best.
To use narcolepsy as the key plot device for what is, in essence, a love story, is the sort of gamble that indy filmmakers are willing to take, and it pays off so well. Grønvall-Petersen has given us a rich, finely wrought depiction of a relationship. Oh, if things do not work out for David and Pernille in the world of aspiration and upward mobility, they are welcome to join us on our next spasm of housecleaning.