The plan of attack embodied by the new Dutch film Guernsey is familiar, particularly to aficionados of Tsai Ming-liang, Jia Zhangke, and late Gus Van Sant: carefully controlled mid-distance compositions, yardages of sullen noncommunication, stingy scene-by-scene explication of setting, time frame, and character. Existentialist despair is a given. One can understandably respond to this schema in one of three ways: awed appreciation for rigor and textural cool; fatigue in the face of so much studied self-consciousness; or a crossbreed of both. With Guernsey‘s adroit version of this Antonioni-syntax revamp, I tended toward door No. 3, privileged by the respect afforded to me and to the real world, but a little duty-worn as well by the aridity.
To be sure, filmmaker Nanouk Leopold has expertise, confidence, and an engraver’s touch: Her *** implacable heroine Anna (Maria Kraakman) packs a suitcase, travels by car and plane, unpacks, packs again, rides some more. We learn only in tiny, shrewd deposits that she’s a new mother, a content wife, and an aid-project worker currently bouncing back and forth to Egypt. Sex with her husband, bathing with her toddler, all of it is performed exactly the same each time. The master-shot landscapes and interiors dominate her—we don’t see a close-up until the narrative turns a brutalizing corner, in which Anna discovers, on a business trip and while brushing her teeth, the hanging body of a seemingly jovial co-worker. The scene is electrically cut and acted, and turns out to be the narrative’s unreferenced catalyst, just as it typifies the kind of juice otherwise in starvation supply.
Guernsey is packed with unspoken conclusions—Anna visits her friend’s widower, who already has another woman installed in his home. Without saying a word, Anna goes home and begins to surveil her own, rather innocuous husband (Fedja van Huêt), scavenging for the unseen violation that destroyed the suicidal woman, and that could be said to also haunt the relationships between her, her remarried father, and her embittered sister. Leopold’s movie is superbly shot and restrained, but not economical; the brooding and introversions profitlessly pad out what might’ve been a leveling featurette. At the same time, it’s an oasis of visual gravity, firmly tripod-rooted to the ground and entirely free of handheld manipulations. Sharply acted under the restrictive circumstances, the film might be too preconceived for its own good—with a touch more reckless life, I might’ve believed it.