Reviews Short Narrative

Manic Lover (2022) – 4.5 stars

Director: Luuk Audenaerde

Writer: Luuk Audenaerde

Cast: Cheyenne Löhnen, Karel Konings, Max Pleysier

Running time: 19mins

Running Indy Film Library over the last four years, one of the most enjoyable things remains recognising a return filmmaker – and noticing the ways their art has progressed in the intervening period. Luuk Audenaerde is one such filmmaker – and I am happy to say his work has come along in leaps and bounds since we last crossed paths.

In late 2020, I reviewed his short body-horror Out of My Skin – and found that while there were plenty of individual details suggesting his team had potential, it was lacking a little invention. Particularly, I suggested that Audenaerde needed to offer up something in the way of “visual or audible storytelling” to take an otherwise very literal end-product to “another level.”

Manic Lover gives me exactly what I asked for, and more besides. Gone are the “lacklustre mise-en-scène” and “vague characterisation” which I felt held back the previous outing. In their place, imaginative and ominous set-dressing that delivers the film’s best punchline and a magnetic central figure, whose inner paradoxes seep into every corner of the story, providing us a well-rounded and relatable character to latch onto.

We follow Maasja (Cheyenne Löhnen), the kind of young person who regular viewers of First Dates will be very familiar with. In an increasingly atomised society, she ends up placing greater and greater emphasis on finding a fairy tale romance as soon as possible, assuming that it will fill the emptiness she is feeling. Maasja does not seem to be socially connected to anyone, either socially or economically – her suggestion that she is a “philosopher” for a living seems to hint that she is unemployed and a little reclusive. In a society that has for generations whittled away the other ways we might connect with people, monogamy is one of the few normative associations left on the table, and so she latches on to it like so many of us do, in the hope it may give us that sense of ‘belonging’ we crave.

In Maasja’s case, this leads to a cycle of random hook-ups, after which she attempts to reverse-engineer a deeper connection. I’m not saying for one second that can’t be done – but it is a risky strategy, especially when you accidentally invite the kind of person who first ends up in her bed.

Credited as ‘Man’, Karel Konings’ character is what the Dutch might generously describe as a lul, and also reserve a number of less-savoury terms for. As the pair lay motionless in bed, it initially appears as though this might be several hours into a night’s sleep but as Maasja attempts to initiate pillow-talk with him – deploying some fantastically blunt forthright Dutch to suggest she would like to be ‘inside his mind’ “since you literally were just inside me” – it quickly becomes clear this is moments after sex ended. Clearly thinking job done, Man seems to have screwed his eyes shut to avoid further interaction – only for Maasja to try and connect with him on a deeper level, trying to share a fantasy with him about relaxing on a quiet beach space.

We have witnessed the idyllic place on the Dutch coast in Maasja’s mind’s eye – a sunny deserted spot (hard to come by in the summer, so location manager Shahir van Dijk clearly deserves some credit here) where she and Man could lounge in comfort – plates of food placed precariously on mounds of sand. The imagery is welcoming, with the use of 16mm deployed to lend it the texture of a warm memory. But, inviting as the assortment of bread and fruit – fresh and shiny like a Willem Kalf still-life – may be, there is also a nagging thought at the back of your mind that in reality, consuming it would be a gritty nightmare.

At any rate, Man is clearly not the one to share this fantasy with, and Maasja is better off moving on. As Man blatantly rejects her invitation without having the courtesy to at least be honest about it, blaming ‘work commitments’ for preventing him participating in something his face already says he has no interest in, Audenaerde deploys a brilliant piece of visual storytelling.

Throughout this conversation, the scene has been shot in equal portions from above. The pair share the bed, and at that point Maasja still believes there is some potential for common ground between them. But as it becomes apparent this Man is a bullet to be dodged, the lens shifts to the left, gradually zooming in until she fills the frame – alone.

Her second attempt at finding a partner to share her dreams seems more promising, even if it is in the freezing nights of December. After managing to pick up a younger man – literally credited as Jongeman (Max Pleysier) – in a café, while wrapped tightly in scarves, a woolly hat and massive coat, she takes him home. The pillow-talk goes much better this time, with the pair turning to face each other as they discuss strange and idealistic futures – the camera remaining above them, dividing the bed into equal halves. At the same time, the lighting is very different – taking on a golden hue, compared to the cool blue shades of the earlier scene – further emphasising the feeling of warmth between them, and suggesting maybe there is potential here.

Maasja decides to risk it all, and ask Jongeman to accompany her to the beach the next day – and he is enthusiastic about it. The pair seem happy – only for a cruel cut to immediately transport Maasja to the cold, windy location in the bleak mid-winter. It is a long way from what Maasja had hoped for – and the visuals around imperilled food underline this, with apples immediately plunging into the grey sand beneath them. Have fun chewing on those.

Even after this well-delivered set-up and pay-off, suggesting reality is unlikely to meet anybody’s expectations today, the forlorn couple attempts to push ahead with the plan for a romantic date. Maasja briefly rests against Jongeman, before hastily sitting up and insisting that they should go home. While her exact reason for this – “I think we should fuck” – might suggest to Jongeman that this is not the beginning of the end, Audenaerde’s camera says otherwise, having gradually moved in these final seconds to cut him out of the picture.

Of course, this ending is tactfully vague enough that there are many meanings you might read into it. Maybe they do have a future together, but the shift of the camera suggests that Maasja still needs to look inside herself to consider what else she needs to feel happy. Finding a significant other is not a cure-all, and perhaps there are other x-factors out there which she needs to address in life – socially, creatively, etc – that can help her find what she is looking for. Or, more pessimistically, perhaps there is nothing to be found. In some cases, leaving these kinds of questions up in the air might seem a little non-committal, but considering its tragi-comic story and grounded lead have been so enjoyable to watch, it gives us a welcome excuse to keep thinking about Manic Lover after the credits have rolled.

Manic Lover has something for the romantics, something for the cynics, and balances both aspects extremely well. It is comedic, but still manages to be earnest, while its charming lead performance and well-thought cinematography make it a pleasure to watch. When the time comes to showcase the best films from Indy Film Library over the last year, I look forward to screening it here in Amsterdam.

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