Director: Sando Heijnen & Charlotte Bernson
Cast: Gijs Radix, Olivier Kriek, Duncan Plas
Running time: 6mins
We live in a world where we are all encouraged to take control of our destinies. We’re perpetually reminded that we are responsible for our own sense of fulfilment – even when we live in a social-economic system in which we are eternally dependent on other people for that. Oddly enough, that has rendered a huge portion of us neurotic control freaks. Cinema can be incredibly impactful when it picks up on that, and plays with it.
One of the most understatedly innovative things about Paranormal Activity, for example, was that through one notorious flat, stationary shot, it toyed with our desire to have everything on a plate. We need to be able to see everything to know what is going on, and we are used to being spoon-fed every aspect of a story’s action from every different angle, to satisfy that need. But in the wide shot of the couple’s bedroom, everything is on screen – but it is so far apart that we cannot see it all. We can keep watch on a darkened hallway on the left, or the bed where our protagonist sleeps on the right. We cannot see both at once, and it is in those moments where we flit from one to the other – hoping not to miss something sneaking up on us – that the true terror of the film resides.
COMPLEX similarly dabbles with this sense of dread, over the course of a six-minute experimental short. The film uses a dual-frame method of storytelling, with constant action occurring both in the upper and lower halves of the screen. And even as we are shown everything, we cannot see it all – with directors Sando Heijnen and Charlotte Bernson using this to ratchet up an atmosphere of tension.
The story, such as it is, sees a young engineer (Gijs Radix) enter a dishevelled office block. The place seems to be all-but-deserted, abandoned pending demolition amid one of the on-going ‘regeneration’ projects in the Netherlands’ cities – where the filmmakers are from. This might explain why two friends (Olivier Kriek and Duncan Plas) seem to be living in the dilapidated complex, with nothing but a couch and a microwave for company. An anti-squatting initiative there, known as antikraak, allows people to live temporarily in vacant and idle properties for low rent, until the future of the property has been decided.
Kriek and Plas lounge idly about the place, while Radix goes to work. He descends into the shadowy engine-room of the complex, while they run their microwave for what feels like hours, in a bid to make popcorn. Tension begins to rise when Radix hears the door slam behind him – locking him in the darkened room where he has been attending to electrical outlets. None the wiser, Kriek and Plas smoke, read and dance about, while Radix calls for help. All the while, the popcorn is bursting, crackling, building to a crescendo – the rumbling train in the restaurant scene of The Godfather. Something is about to happen; but we don’t know on which half of the screen, and the anticipation – the knowledge that the gamble as to where we pay attention means we may miss it – is unbearable.
Spoilers, it is the top screen. Radix, scrambling in the dark, nudges a certain cable, there is a loud bang, and then his screen immediately goes black. The only clue to what may have happened to him is that Kriek and Plas’ popcorn has fallen silent. Their bumbling investigations as to what has made the power go out confirm what this leads us to suspect.
In my case, on my first watch of COMPLEX, the moment of injury was actually the only gamble I got right. This is arguably the biggest problem with the film – if you are going to fit the story together, it requires either the luck of a lottery winner, always looking at the right part of the screen when things happen, or the opportunity to re-watch it. If it’s being shown in a theatre as part of a festival, that is not a luxury the viewers will have – so large parts of the story’s context will likely be missed entirely. On my first watch, for example, because I concentrated more on the upper screen – which was heavier on movement – I missed the appearance of the engineer walking through the antikraak scene where the other two characters were. As a result, for the largest part of the film, I was unaware they were in the same building, or part of the same timeline.
The frenetic cinematography of the upper screen becomes a problem in this regard, because it is much more interesting to watch than the static lower frame. It draws the eye constantly, meaning while you watch over the shoulder of the engineer as he struggles to re-open the door, you will probably miss the others turning on the microwave to make popcorn. Instead, you might just assume they are also trapped in some other building, and killing time until they are released. You might think the ‘popping’ is a non-diegetic soundtracking choice.
Alesander Tamar Aydin might have received more opportunities to show off his talents as a director of photography in this way – but I wonder if it might have worked better to have two stationary shots, which our characters walk between. Perhaps, shooting this like it were a stage-play, where the action takes place simultaneously, might have helped us understand the time and place of everything better. At the same time, once everyone has moved into their allotted area, that could still allow the ramping up of that ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ sense of tension.
COMPLEX should be commended in its unflinching committal to being just that. It is not an easy watch, and it does not hold your hand through its story. It is a multi-layered experiment in tension, and the building of atmosphere. It may have been better to build up to that, though, rather than throwing us in at the deep-end.