Today: May 23, 2024

Babycall

Film industry insiders know Pål Sletaune as the man who passed on American Beauty because he didn’t like the script.

Film industry
insiders know Pål Sletaune as the man who passed on American Beauty because he
didn’t like the script.

At the time, American Beauty’s five Oscar wins (including best film and best
screenplay) made Sletaune look more
than a little foolish but thirteen years is a long time and posterity has not
been kind to Sam Mendes
hagiographic take on upper middle-class American life. It is easy to see why
Sletaune did not like American Beauty: Mendes’ film deconstructs middle-class
desire in search of heroism while Sletaune’s 2007 film Next Door deconstructs middle-class desire and finds nothing but
madness, obsession and death.

Like Next Door, Babycall is a psychological thriller that explores the fuzzy boundaries
between those powerful emotions that are deemed socially acceptable and those
that are usually associated with madness. However, unlike Next Door, Babycall does not prowl the well
trodden pathways leading from sexual obsession to madness, it explores the
altogether trickier and more taboo paths between parental love and child abuse.

The film opens with Anna (Rapace) and her eight-year-old son Anders moving into protected
accommodation following the conviction of her violently abusive husband.
Visibly shaken, Anna is reticent to let go of Anders and so insists upon them
sharing a bed. In fact, Anna is so over-protective of her son that she refuses
to let him go to school until social services step in and threaten to take
Anders into care. Still worried about the possibility of something happening to
her son, Anna buys a baby monitor so that she can hear him sleeping in the
other room.

When Anna goes to buy the baby monitor, she strikes up an
uneasy friendship with a shop assistant named Helge (Joner). The basis for this fragile relationship is that while Anna
is an over-protective mother, Helge is an over-protected son who is unwilling
to acknowledge the negative feelings he has about the way his mother treated
him as a child. Compelled to feel charitable towards over-protective mothers,
Helge is only too eager to ‘understand’ Anna’s refusal to let go of Anders.
Similarly, Anna is only too eager to believe that an over-protected son might
grow up to understand why his mother would not let him go.

With Helge providing validation for her paranoia and the
baby monitor allowing her to hear Anders’s breathing, Anna begins to relax only
for her newfound sense of security to be shattered when the baby monitor begins
picking up sounds of abuse coming from a nearby apartment. Spurred on by a
combination of empathy and boredom, Anna begins investigating the source of the
screams. However, the more Anna delves into the lives of her neighbours, the
more questions are raised about her own life as Anna turns out to have a
problem distinguishing between the world as it is and the world as she wishes
it to be.

Though a powerful and compelling film in its own right, Babycall is ultimately a genre piece
and the genre in question is that of films like Roman Polanski’s The Tenant (1976),
Brad Anderson’s Session 9 (2001) and Martin
Scorsese
’s Shutter Island
(2010). However, while many of Babycall’s
elements will be familiar to fans of psychological thrillers in which nothing
is as it seems, Sletaune’s use of these elements is so powerful and compelling
that his film easily outclasses many of the best know films in the genre.

At the heart of Babycall
is the complex, unhealthy but ultimately humanising relationship between Helge
and Anna. Fresh from her success as the original cinematic Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Rapace offers us a veneer of faceless
maternal anxiety that slowly peels away, revealing more and more humanity as
Anna becomes more and more detached from reality. Similarly impressive is Joner
who manages to find strength, courage and likeability in a character whose life
has been defined by a cowardly willingness to apologise for the actions of a
monstrous and tyrannical parent. These twin performances, though entertaining
to watch in their own right, provide a sound human basis for what could all too
easily have been a directionless attack on abusive parenting. The power of Babycall lies not in the decision to
confront the issue of abusive parenting but rather in the capacity to make
these types of parent appear sympathetic. Indeed, we feel for Anna because she
is afraid and because she loves her son but when that love produces individuals
as broken as Helge, we have to ask whether maternal love is really the
unambiguously positive thing we have always assumed it to be.

Filled with fantastic performances, subtle and yet
thematically substantial cinematography and a heroic desire to ask
uncomfortable questions, Babycall is
not just a brilliant psychological thriller; it is an early contender for film
of the year.

Alex Moss Editor

Alex Moss’ obsession with film began the moment he witnessed the Alien burst forth from John Hurt’s stomach. It was perhaps ill-advised to witness this aged 6 but much like the beast within Hurt, he became infected by a parasite called ‘Movies’. Rarely away from his computer or a big screen, as he muses on Cinematic Deities, Alex is “more machine now than man. His mind is twisted and evil”. Email: alex.moss@filmjuice.com

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