Reviews Short Narrative

Huldre (2022) – 4.5 stars

Director: Julie Holst Nielsen-Man

Writer: Julie Holst Nielsen-Man

Cast: Astrid Haugesen & Ida Kaae

Huldre (the Danish for Holes) is the very embodiment of the received wisdom that less is more. A beautiful exercise in cinematic restraint, this intelligent, minimalist production is taken to remarkable heights by a patient script, and the emotionally-charged performances of its two leads.

IFL readers may recognise Astrid Haugesen from a previous outing in Miasma; another film where she was challenged to express her feelings wordlessly – but beyond that, the project could not be more different. Far from Miasma’s foreboding Nordic mountains, Huldre’s stripped back story takes place entirely in the apartment of a young student couple. Rather than grand cosmic forces, or ancient evils, there is simply an unspoken tension between the two of them as the source of any ‘conflict’.

In such a confined production, even with an excellent script, actors can easily flounder. However, both actors here give fine accounts of themselves, albeit in markedly different ways. Neither character is named; which is a pain to review, but also a good way of indicating where their relationship is. It is in that early post-honeymoon phase, where names drop out of interactions, because ‘who else would I be talking to?’ That stage of initial familiarisation can be very tricky, especially when it involves two different styles of communicator. You might know something of each other, but not all of the key signs of emotional discontent. It can seem that partners are fine, to the extent they start taking that much for granted, but each know something feels off.

The accomplished and complex deliveries of both actors in Huldre are essential to making the most of that. As the more extroverted partner, Ida Kaae attempts to jolly things along throughout two extended scenes. First, she finds Haugesen applying makeup in their bathroom – something which is apparently unheard of in recent times. Maintaining an upbeat tone, Kaae guesses multiple causes for this change, each met with a quiet smile. While Haugesen might be less forthcoming with words in this case, however, Kaae is clearly leaving just as much unsaid as her partner – talking plenty, but saying nothing.

Haugesen, meanwhile, verbalises sparingly, but her face tells us so much more. Maybe this is why the character written for her by Julie Holst Nielsen-Man puts that early emphasis on makeup. Her face is her most trusted form of communicating that something needs discussed, so instinctively she tries to flag up her eyes to her partner with blue eye-shadow.

Either Kaae is unable to read that signal, or does not want to. Either way, the following scene sees the pair sitting together on the sofa in their small living room. As close together as they are though, they also seem to be drifting apart. Kaae continues to banter and coax Haugesen – but this only seems to cause her to become even quieter. And in turn, as much as Kaae bluffs that nothing is the matter, her failure to cheer the scene up without addressing any underlying issues is unnerving her, to the point she goes to escape it.

Something has got to give. But even when it finally does, writer-director Julie Holst Nielsen-Man resists the urge to have everything explode – delivering an understated and reserved conclusion that is as bitter-sweet as they come.

Haugesen, who moments before had been lightly grinning, reveals herself to have been putting on a masterfully brave face – and suddenly releases a stream of silent tears. She had felt Kaae’s unwillingness to discuss her seasonal depression was a sign her partner was looking to exit the relationship. Meanwhile, Kaae was clearly wanting to reach out, but also struggling do so for fear of how the discussion might go. It is only by finally acknowledging her partner’s mental state here that she can finally clarify she is still invested in the relationship, though. And while an important lesson in adult life is that just putting everything out in the open does not guarantee a relationship survives, it is the only way it has any chance at all.   

Here, two lovers who communicate in very different ways finally manage to find a level where they can both speak about their feelings. And by doing so, they assuage so much of the fear and angst that had been growing in the moments before. We know that the world is harsh, and this is not a guarantee for happiness – but it is still some kind of comfort, and hope, for two characters we can intimately relate to. We don’t need anything more than that – and it shows what incredible heights filmmakers can scale on a €0 budget, as long as they are aware of their limits.

There are two issues worth flagging up for the film, though. The first only applies for non-Danish audiences, but it would help make the film more accessible to international viewers. The subtitles when the two actors speak are well realised – but at one point, a book is shown on camera for an extended period. Kaae has been reading it, and when she leaves the room momentarily, Haugesen glances at it – something which seems to trigger her powerful release of emotion in the film’s climax. If it is of such importance, and we see the book’s cover and a small highlighted section, viewers need to know what it says. The absence of that might not change anything – but we need to be able to make that call for ourselves.

Second, Julie Holst Nielsen-Man has submitted her film in an incomplete form. Something I really do encourage filmmakers not to do – because later changes can completely transform the meaning and feel of a film. A note in Huldre’s submission form states “This version is without final sound” – and I am very nervous to find out what that means. If someone is ‘cleaning’ the sound track, that’s one thing (although I think it is unnecessary as natural sound is very appropriate for such a realist project). But if that means the director is looking to clear the rights for a soundtrack, that is quite another. The ambient silence of the film’s background is so wonderfully suited to what occurs – and placing music in here would disrupt that, while trampling over the subtlety audiences can currently find in the film’s reserved script and nuanced performances. There is no need for a ‘final sound’ to tell us how to feel about that. I have no idea if that is the plan – but if it is, I simply must implore the filmmakers not to go through with it.

Nit-picking aside, Huldre is a stunning piece of work. It features a pair of extremely exciting young actors, who have the potential for incredible things in their future careers. And it comes from the mind of a student filmmaker, who has the restraint and the imagination to produce must-see stories with the most minimal of budgets. This all bodes very well for the future of Europe’s independent film scene.

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