My notes on Undergods, which has screened/streamed at the Fantasia Festival.
Writer-director Chino Moya’s debut feature has the narrative structure of The Tales of Hoffman (which gets namechecked) and The Saragossa Manuscript – stories wind into each other, offering parallels and echoes, but the film steps back at some points to include a tale-teller and audience, whether it be a father (Khalid Abdalla) telling a wandering story to his daughter at bed-time, or a corpse collector (Geza Rohrig) yarning with his workmate (Johann Myers). We stray between parallel dystopian Europes (somewhere between Delicatessen and High-Rise), and no particular miserable world has any higher degree of reality than any other – some stories don’t even end, but break off into others … though the notion of being ‘among the missing’ covers all the characters, whether we see their fates or not.
The four main stories concern men whose enclosed worlds are upturned by menacing strangers or blind chance – one plot point even hinges on a lottery whereby a man randomly vanished and enslaved is returned to the world by lottery. Ron (Michael Gould) and Ruth (Hayley Carmichael) think they are the first residents in a block of flats – but Harry (Ned Dennehy) comes to the door, claiming to be locked out of his own flat on the eleventh floor … and his mix of charm, competence, dependence and aggression gets him a place on the sofa, which eventually drives Harry to simmering rage, and a discovery that several plausible lies have been told. Hans (Eric Godon), a businessman, cheats a Mabuse-look genius ‘foreigner’ (Jan Bijvoet) out of his life’s work, then has to recruit his daughter’s poet boyfriend Johann (Tadgh Murphy) to rescue the girl Maria (Tanya Reynolds) from a retaliatory abduction … though this takes them all out of one story, told by the loving father, and into the bleak, empty, abandoned streets of the corpse-collectors’ world (I was slightly reminded of the meshed-together societies of China Mieville’s The City and the City). Here, Sam (Sam Louwyck), who might once have been a complacent salaryman, is freed when his number comes up … and returns to yet another reality, where his wife Rachel (Kate Dickie) has remarried weak-willed exec Dominic (Adrian Rawlings) who is no happier to find the shaven-headed, silent, traumatised Sam on his sofa (or in his armchair) than Ron was at the presence of Harry in the first episode. Even in suburban comfort, Dominic exudes mild desperation – since a promised promotion and effusive praise and a birthday party invitation from his feral boss (Burn Gorman) is plainly a build-up to some further humiliation.
In this universe, a social faux pas is given the same weight as a murder. At dinner, long-haired Johann quizzes sleekly corrupt Hans about the point of his life – an exchange which makes both men look like arseholes, setting them up for later abuse (including head-shaving for the fop). The repeated downfalls of these ordinary men involve their loss of women who struggle to seem more than plot tokens: Kate Dickie makes the best fist of it, and her incipient scariness even upstages the supposed menaces in her section of the story). It’s effective, but at the point about ordinary blokes not noticing the chaos closing in until it’s too late is made over and over and is less interesting than the textures of these worlds, which are all different but all horrible, and the small, cringe-making details observed as glum folk trudge to doom. Moya casts a remarkable number of pockmarked faces and toothy rictus grins, but also finds perfect brutalist concrete locations.
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