Director: Yael Elbee
Writers: Yael Elbee & Michal Elbee
Cast: Gina Henkel
Running time: 18mins
Less can with certainty be more in indy cinema – a truth that is illustrated by Yael Elbee’s beautiful meditation on the strangeness of modernity, Nothing Important. A woman wakes up, goes shopping, walks passed a hotel and sees a key card to one of the hotel’s rooms lying on the pavement. The woman goes home, returns to the hotel, and accesses the room. The woman eats cookies, watches TV, has a shower. The occupant of the room returns, they have a desultory conversation, then they both leave. That’s it, folks, that’s all the happens, that’s the action. Nothing Important indeed.
Yet, this movie is so wonderfully crafted, your reviewer came away with a sense of how odd our lives are under late capitalism and how the sounds, objects and textures of modernity mould our consciousness. Many aspiring indy filmmakers fall into the trap of making a critique and portrayal of the modern world by giving their characters grand statements to make in the screenplay – something that this film studiously avoids. The director’s method is to create an atmosphere through the acting, the sound and cinematography which positively demands a response from the audience – one of questioning our notions of reality.
Critics often focus on the name of a director as a useful tag through which to refer to a whole production team – but that can be a little reductive. While I have been referring to the director’s method, it should be thoroughly noted that Nothing Important is very much a team effort. The movie is credited as an Elbee Sisters production – Yael directed, and edited, while her sister Michal provided the short story the pair converted into a screenplay. As with new filmmakers, aspiring authors can also have a habit of over-elaborating; so, the restraint from the script – and presumably its source material – also deserve some praise. A third sister, Daphni, is also credited with production design, but beyond that the Elbee clan is supported by some superb non-familial work from Amit Edelman (cinematography) and Daphna Kennan (sound design).
Meanwhile, experienced actor Gina Henkel is superbly cast as the lead. Michelle (Henkel) is on screen for the entire film, aside from some brief cutaway shots, and a large proportion of the scenes are shot as close ups of her face. We hear her speaking in only two scenes – a banal phone conversation with a friend to cancel a meeting and a short enigmatic conversation with the male occupant of the hotel room when he returns.
Michelle is very much a passive receptor – stuff happens to her – even the otherwise existential decision to visit the hotel room after the chance finding of the key card is a reaction to something not an origination. This all makes a big ask from the director and Henkel puts in a virtuoso performance – her silent facial configurations convey so much about character that at the end of the movie we are drawn to the conclusion that we have come to understand Michelle – when in reality we know little about her life except what we can glean from clues from her clothing and material possessions.
There are many stand-out moments from Henkel’s performance but the one I enjoyed most was near the start of the movie. A lugubrious Michelle is in bed wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the word HAPPY – she puts headphones on as she picks up a laptop. Out of the babbling of the internet, we hear Casey, a participant in an online chat show, describing herself as A True Essex Girl and declaring All Men Are Dickheads. Henkel gives Michelle a knowing enigmatic smile and we in the audience are drawn to agree with the proposition.
The filmmakers are quite ludic in their use of language. The film is shot in Berlin and uses English, the language of babel, for the minimal dialogue and the intrusions from the internet and the hotel’s TV and PA system. However, there is a scene in the hotel bedroom when Michelle picks up the room phone to overhear a conversation in German between two women where we hear Michelle’s name mentioned. I do not speak German so could not understand the meaning – I simply registered the reference to Michelle. In some movies, this might have been frustrating but in Nothing Important it somehow added another layer of meaning – of exclusion against inclusivity.
The movie is stunningly well shot and superbly edited. Some of the close-ups of Henkel are breath-taking. I would recommend looking out for the shot of Gina in the hotel lift with her head flanked by two exotic flowers – the quality of lighting is almost numinous. The end shots are also extraordinarily well done – after the bland claustrophobia of a modern hotel’s rooms and corridors, the filmmakers let us escape to a beautifully composed city roof scene – an eclectic mixing of a baroque church, early industrial chimneystacks, and apartment blocks.
One approach to composition they employ is particularly successful in disconcerting the viewer – the camera quite often focuses on the back of someone’s head. This is a technique borrowed from the surrealists – think Magritte’s self-portrait, La Décalcomanie. There are two dynamite shots. We see the male room occupant’s head with immaculately coiffured hair combed down under the shirt collar – a mundane detail but so effective. The same scene then ends with a shot which is again looking at the back of the man’s head but focuses in towards Michelle’s face – as it does so the light falls on the man’s shirt giving the weave of the fabric an iridescent quality – a beautiful piece of cinema.
Integral to the whole success of Nothing Important is the soundscape provided by Daphna Keenan, a Berlin musician – this drives the film and is a mixture of musical composition and found ambient sound. For the opening scene with a drowsy Michelle lying in bed, Keenan provides a rhythmic thumping that seems as though a metal animal is roaring – it is deeply unsettling and sets the mood – a bit like the death and dread motifs that Mahler used in the early symphonies. Keenan deploys it subtly – it fades away as Michelle comes to life and sets the scene for the audio arrival of Casey from Essex. When we move to the hotel, the soundtrack takes centre stage – it becomes the screenplay. The place is called the Shell (home on your back) and through the tannoy announcements that Keenan provides we learn that the management’s corporate strategy is to pulverise their customers’ brains with New Age bullshit. There is a delicious sequence in the lift when a soft female voice announces to Michelle and to us:
A feeling that grows…becomes bigger with TIME
An inner voice that says…I want…I want.
Michelle greets this verbiage with an enigmatic smile – she is, after all, not a paying guest at the establishment.
The found sound is used effectively – a cleaner disturbs Michelle when she is taking a shower – I never would have thought that the irruption into life of a vacuum cleaner could be such a shock to the senses. For the final scene, where we move from the enigma of the resolution with the returning occupant to the outdoor cityscape, Keenan provides a beautiful melodic composition with hints of flute and sitar which seem to parody the hotel’s New Age idiocies. I want…I want.
With Nothing Important, we have a team of artists led by Yael Elbee, who appear to be operating at the top of their game. That is not to say they have peaked, but that this is indy cinema at pretty much its best. For aspiring filmmakers, do give this film a viewing. There is so much to learn from the way each part of the team goes about their craft. And, maybe, you will agree with my conclusion that the Elbees have shown how strange and magical our everyday realities can be shown to be.