It isn’t often that I really don’t know where to start with a review, however to put it simply, Offenbacher’s House Within The Night got under my skin in a way that few films have in quite some time, which is saying quite a bit considering I typically see at least ten films a week.
The film opens with a disclaimer which explains that the film was shot during a manic Bipolar episode, something that clearly had a huge effect on the production of the film and therefore on the final product. I kept this in mind throughout, trying to take note of anything I noticed surrounding this specifically, but not much occurred to me right up until the final few minutes when I noticed the severe contrast between a manic episode and the focuses of the film, the focus being on time lost, time spent poorly and time in general as something to be feared, and a manic episode being something that more often than not makes one completely forget about how time is passing. But after some deeper thinking on it, I realised that maybe it is time that can spark something like that, a severe panic that comes into its own as this manic episode, mania induced to try to act quickly when one places themselves under the incredible pressure that time can have on all of us if we let it. Of course, much of the film is difficult to look at this way, but just knowing that the film was shot during an episode added this other layer of intrigue to it, especially seeing how the subject matter of the film manages to both contrast and complement this idea at the same time.
Anyway, on with the film itself or we’ll be here all day. House Within The Night’s opening is a shovel to the head if ever I’ve seen one, acting as an homage to Lynch’s The Grandmother for the first minute or so with these incredibly disorienting and dizzying jump-cuts alongside this brilliant audio sample that speaks about never forgetting someone. It’s a jarring opening, as many of the best are, and it’s followed by a cut to credits before we come back to the Prologue, titled The Death Of Terra. The prologue is simply two shots long, and before you start thinking it’s only a few seconds long, you couldn’t be more wrong. The first shot of these two is an astounding long take featuring Sheila Blanc as Terra and Taylor Woodson as Rob, Terra is dying and Rob is clearly completely powerless, all he can do is watch and listen to what she has to say. She speaks of a life she feels was wasted, describing that she never felt that she was really moving forward, and that despite the fact that she always focused on time and trying to escape it, all she really did was take away time from doing things herself. She tries passing these ideas onto Rob, who seems hesitant to take them on board. “It all just rushes by you,” she says. To say that this opening scene isn’t an impressive showcase of both the acting talents of Blanc and Woodson as well as the writing talents of Offenbacher would be to lie, this scene is pretty stunning in how hard it manages to hit and how quickly it manages to establish the characters and make the audience feel for them. The subtle ticking away of a clock in the background only adds to the unsettling nature of the moment, those awkward silences filled by this ticking that becomes deafening by the end of the prologue, a hint at what is to come for Paul’s (a character we haven’t yet met) mentality towards time shown in the film. The way that we seem cut away from the most troubling moment of the scene to a shot of a door certainly doesn’t help to calm the nerves either, with not knowing what we have missed out on only adding to this great discomfort that has been gradually piecing itself together since the start of the film. The moment is extremely mournful and bleak, and sets the stage for what is to come.
Whilst mentioning the stage, I’ll quickly digress and say that much of this film does play out similarly to a stage play, interestingly enough. The dialogue scenes are often shot in just one shot, a gentle observational viewpoint that lets the audience just feel what is being said twice as much as they would otherwise, bringing to mind the work of Dreyer (which is never a bad director to be compared to). What is more interesting, though, is when the film flips this on its head and becomes outright experimental at times, with these great fading transitions and dizzying uses of superimposition that leave you scratching your head. These are helped a hell of a lot by the excellent sound design and the surprisingly tender score, which both manage to elevate any moment they’re used in (they’re used quite rarely, but this only works to add emphasis to the parts when you do notice them, making their impact even greater). This contrast between the stage and the truly cinematic is fascinating, as well as uncomfortable in all the right ways, just adding another layer to the film for the audience to peel back as they feel necessary.
Before you know it, the first chapter, Before the Flood, starts. It opens with a shot of Rob next to a broken clock, with him seemingly taking some relief in the fact that it isn’t working, before this terrific jump-cut (helped along once again by the sound design, the deafening clanging of the shovel cueing the cut itself) to Paul, (played by Pierre Walters, in one of the best leading performances of the year), digging a hole in the garden, something we see him do a few times throughout, never knowing the reason why until the very end. From the background, Rob wanders back in, a character who for the most part acts as a kind of counterpart to Paul, often questioning his ideas. In this scene, however, Rob’s words help to reflect Paul’s mindset whilst Paul stays silent, as if unable to really say anything out of his feelings. This monologue also evokes the stage massively, with Woodson looking off into the distance as he says his lines in the foreground of the shot, but it works beautifully, continuing to contrast the more aggressively cinematic parts that precede it as well as emphasising the loneliness of the moment, further expressing the pain felt by the characters and their angst to the point where we can easily come to understand their pain, as an audience. This emphasis on the loneliness is only added to when Rob’s character stops talking and simply wanders off effortlessly, leaving Paul once again completely alone, just as he started, the new absence of sound aside from the repetitive clanging of the shovel against the ground becoming a painful reminder of the isolation experienced by the characters.
This is followed by a wonderful cut into colour, whereas up to this point the film has been black and white. This seems to represent a happier time for the characters, one with hope, as Paul is talking to a young Terra (played by Callie Beattie). This is a genuinely sweet moment, until suddenly disrupts by Paul waking up, realising that it has only been a dream and that his reality is just as black as it has been up until now, the harsh cut only serving to remind the audience of the painful emptiness in Paul’s life. The pacing slows down, the film becomes more bleak, and the focus on thoughts of the past and a crippling fear of not moving past yourself is brought up by Rob and Paul at the table. Paul voices his severe discomfort with time and its passing, and Rob, knowing he is completely powerless in really changing anything simply says that Paul will ‘think yourself (himself) into oblivion’ by choosing (or forcing himself) to focus on time as much as he does. Paul describes this want to be alive, to feel, to express emotion and to learn through time, but Rob then counters this, too, by saying that there is also the possibility of someone never truly living, being too wrapped up in their worries and their fears to really do anything properly (something brought up by Terra in the prologue, and consistently throughout the film), looking at the real tragedy of living a life but never really noticing it or feeling it, merely existing.
The second chapter, The Flood, focuses on much of the same, gently expanding and becoming more playful with the form, using subtle zooms to place added tension and emphasis on the characters and their situations (most notably during a discussion that becomes insanely uneasy towards the end), the sound design becoming more abrasive and the score gradually appearing more, up until one phenomenal scene (featuring the single best tracking shot I’ve seen all year) as Paul becomes completely over-run by his fear, to the point that he runs inside, into his bed as best as he can and lies there, screaming. We cut to black, the shift highlighted by the sudden drop of any sound, and are left there for a few seconds. When we do return, the film is in colour, and we finally start to understand how Paul’s past has had such a significant impact on his present. Just before this, though, is a stunning match cut to an overwhelming beautiful shot (pictured below), a little hint at the beauty to come. Interestingly, this once again comes from sleep (both times, as the colour is introduced, Paul goes to bed just before, inferring the his hope comes from his dreams, that his present life is simply too void of positivity to be colourful as his past was.)
It was here, when being placed back into the colourful part of the film, that I noticed just how rich it was visually, the colour grading is just beautiful, matching the more positive tone of these moments and much of the dialogue shared – as well as the quiet moments of peace – between Paul and Terra. This interchanging of the past and the present creates this simultaneously beautiful and disturbing idea that, no matter what, the past will influence the present, and instills this idea through the contrast created between the black and white present and the colourful past, as well as using reoccurring dialogue to show how these discussions and the influence of love left a mark on Paul. There is also this unexpected emphasis on permanence in this part, with much of the discussions between Paul and Terra revolving around this want, or even a need for permanence, and this feeling that without it, there is an inability to cope with what life throws at us. There is a noticeable tenderness, an intimacy to these scenes, but it’s all given this eerie filter when the characters are discussing how they know it won’t last forever, and the audience soon come to realise the very same thing, and in turn, gain that same want for permanence, that same dependence on it.
In the third chapter, the material continues to be just as harsh and honest as it has been up to this point. It was here when I noticed the clear split in the film, making it act as something of two clear halves in terms of ideology and theme (excluding the ending, anyway). It was also here that I first thought of the fascinating distance between a manic episode and the content of the film itself, which couldn’t be much further apart if they tried to be.
The fourth, and final, part really brings it all together. The dialogue focuses on this gutting feeling of complete and utter powerlessness in the face of time, this feeling that doing anything (or everything) is pointless because it can’t really change anything, this feeling that time spent doing anything is wasted because ultimately, it’s only suffering felt as time passes and we edge closer to death. (I won’t compare Tarr to this stylistically, but the Turin Horse does come to mind in terms of sharing the same ideas and themes.) As Paul says, his worrying has meant that ‘My (his) entire life has been background noise to whatever’s in my (his) head.’, a line that hit a little too close to home, admittedly. After another excellent monologue, the film ends, and I won’t touch on the monologue much for fear of ruining it for anybody. I like to hope that I’ve been vague enough here as far as the plot goes to leave it intriguing.
So, trying to tie this one up may prove quite difficult, because there is just so much to unpack here and so much personal emotion in the way, so I’ll just try to leave it by saying that this is absolutely one of the best films of the year, one that is emotionally confronting, unrelenting and terrifying, bringing to light almost every thought you try to bury deep down and never pay attention to and forcing you to confront every single one. It’s harsh, it’s upsetting, it’s brutal, but it’s also incredibly redeeming filmmaking, especially for a debut feature. An absolutely astounding work, and one that I hope is the first of many more to come, because as it stands, House Within The Night is one of the best films of the year.