Predicated on intersecting lives and bizarre coincidence, Barbara Albert’s impressive second feature, Free Radicals, has a generic resemblance to Robert Altman’s Short Cuts and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. But this 33-year-old Austrian filmmaker is at once more compassionate and more detached toward her characters.
Free Radicals, which was shown at the last New York Film Festival, is an intelligent, viscerally intellectual exercise in ensemble acting and associative montage, enlivened with some terrific visual and dramatic ideas. Albert opens with a straight-faced illustration of the so-called Butterfly Effect—the notion that the tiniest variable can create drastic meteorological changes. Wings fluttering the atmosphere of the Amazon jungle precipitate a freak storm that brings down an airplane leaving a single passenger—Manu (Kathrin Resetarits), a young Austrian woman returning from a Brazilian vacation—as the miracle survivor. Six years later, Manu is back in her hometown, working supermarket checkout, married, and the mother of a small child; another accident occurs, and this time she’s not so lucky.
Free Radicals unfolds over a year and involves perhaps a dozen characters—mainly Manu’s friends and relations, and the teenage passengers of the car that collides with hers. There’s one obvious connection between these clusters who meet in various combinations: Manu’s brother is a high school teacher who explains chaos theory and the wonder of fractal patterns to the less-than-fascinated teens. Other links are more oblique and are often created by natural sound bridges, subtle match cuts, and blatant synchronicity. In the end, everyone is brought together with the gala completion of the shopping mall that’s been under construction for most of the film.
While some characters are markedly more sympathetic than others, all relationships are difficult. The quality of loss, loneliness, and isolation is reminiscent of vintage Ingmar Bergman—with even more abundant joyless sex. The mood, however, is more rapt than bereft. Albert’s avant-garde background can be seen in her taste for decentered compositions, short shots, and busy, poster-like images. There’s a recurring holy-card image of a kneeling child bathed in divine light (Albert has said that the movie evokes her own childhood fears). Periodically the camera floats upward to establish a sense of invisible hovering presence.
Manu’s young daughter, Yvonne (Deborah Tan Brink), draws comfort from this sense of her disembodied mother; others are made uneasy. “I always have the feeling she can see us,” Manu’s husband, Andi (Georg Friedrich), tells her best friend, Andrea (Ursula Strauss)—they’d been sleeping together even before Manu’s demise, but her absence necessarily complicates the affair. In an early, lighthearted riff on reincarnation, Manu jokes that she would like to come back as a cupcake; in the context of the movie, she’s closer perhaps to a butterfly. The unresolved ending seems to suggest that Andrea is having her own out-of-body experience.
Albert’s characters use Ouija boards, play the lottery, join choral groups, and engage in transactional therapy, but her faith is more a matter of editing. Jumping from one vignette to another, the filmmaker succeeds in establishing a material mysticism from the web of secret connections and chance meetings. That a minor mishap has the same cosmic valence as some huge happenstance gives the movie a cumulative emotional intensity. Everything is connected . . . or will be.