Cinema/TV, Film Notes

FrightFest review – Family Dinner

My notes on Family Dinner

Austrian writer-director Peter Hengl enters the field of gastro-horror with an Easter-themed slow burn – which pays off gruesomely after a lot of unsettling omens.  Simi (Nina Katlein), fifteen and hefty, has opted not to spend the holidays with her own family but to visit the remote home of Claudia (Pia Hierzegger), who used to be married to her uncle but has moved on and remarried wiry Stefan (Michael Pink).  Simi’s agenda is to ask Claudia, author of diet-themed cookery books, to get her on a weight-loss regime – which Claudia is reluctant to do, just as she’s reluctant to have Simi over the Easter weekend itelf, though she changes her mind oddly after Simi helps when her cousin Filipp (Alexander Sladek), who has unwillingly yielded his bed and half his room to the guest, runs away from home.  Simi happens to have seen a stash of clothes – and a key candy bar – hidden near a pyre built in the forest for a traditional bonfire, and that’s where the sickly Filipp is hiding.  Filipp seems to be pampered, to the extent of having his food cut into little bits and being subject to a nighttime declaration of love ritual, but seethes with resentment at everyone in the house … it’s likely that he is responsible for a decapitated mouse on Simi’s pillow, but out hunting he can’t bring himself to cut a wounded rabbit’s throat so the practical girl steps in.  Claudia’s first demand is a complete cleanse, which means fasting for the whole week – as she and Stefan are doing – and then a low-calorie diet, starting with a special meal on Easter Sunday.

Claudia has not only broken from her former family but lost a lot of her readers, and seems to be exploring some non-Christian version of the festival – which Stefan isn’t as committed to but is prepared to go along with, though he sneaks the odd scrap from the table to break the fast Simi tries to observe, despite audible hunger pangs.  This is one of two FrightFest films this year centering on an overweight teenage girl put in a quandary between doing a right thing and looking after her own interests (three, if you count the pregnant protagonist of Huesera) – though Cerida/Piggy is given the option of passive revenge whereas Simi’s temptation is transformation.  Cerida and Simi are both significantly skilled at hunting rabbits, which is a strange connection.  Hengl casts his film brilliantly – Katlein is profoundly affecting as a girl with body image issues, as wounded by Stefan telling her she looks fine as she is as by Filipp’s crude taunts and willing to go along with obvious crackpot Claudia.  Hierzegger, Pink and Sladek are all slim but not exactly healthy in body and mind, and every cookbook illustration meal presented to the nurtured and nourished son while everyone else at the table sips water is a horrible spectacle.

The way Simi’s physical presence is disruptive is subtly conveyed by the subplot about how much room she takes up.  Claudia’s house is big enough to have multiple spare rooms, but the only places the girl can sleep are the bedroom occupied by the resentful Filipp or the living room where Claudia works on her next book.  Staircases are so narrow Simi is perpetually having to squeeze past others.  The nature of the family dinner becomes more and more apparent, with wavering about whether Simi will be allowed to participate – or even whether she wants to – but there are feints and false leads, including one blunt picture text message that tells a different story when blown up.  Obviously, this isn’t a film that can end before someone gets carved up on Sunday and that bonfire is lit – and it’s more a question of a slow reveal than a big surprise, though the finale isn’t entirely what you might expect.  It has a bleak woodsy feel, as if Easter in this part of the world fell in the dead of winter.



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