True Love Ways (2014)
Starring Anna Hausburg, David C. Bunners, Kai Michael Müller
Directed by Mathieu Seiler
In my line of work, rare is the occasion that I get to go into a movie with little to no prior knowledge of what I’m letting myself in for. One exception was at this year’s Molins de Rei Horror Film Festival when Swiss-born director Mathieu Seiler’s staunchly avant-garde rape/revenge thriller, True Love Ways, threw me for a loop.
Shot in minimalistic, clinical black and white and sharing much in common with Géla Babluani’s more than impressive 13 Tzameti (2005), True Love Ways echoes the camera stylo tendencies of the swinging ‘60s with aural and visual motifs harking back to early Polanski or Jarmusch. Substituting 13 Tzameti’s innocent Sébastien for the seemingly angelic Séverine (Hausburg), Seiler spikes his stylistic story with a rape/revenge theme with a dime a dozen couple inadvertently getting tangled up in a clandestine world of perverted and macabre aristo games headed up by the swanky Chef (Bunners).
Following in Jarmusch’s footsteps – focusing heavily on the mental make-up of the protagonists – initially everything simmers deceptively slowly as the narrative concentrates on a crumbling relationship, expounding how Séverine is more fascinated with a recurring dream than the banalities of her dullsville life. Seiler couldn’t get more cynical about relationships even if he tried, something which is portrayed to perfection in a bickering match early on in the film that leaves lovelorn Tom (Müller) clutching at straws to win his way back into Séverine’s good books. It might all feel very insignificant (and particularly cheesy at times), but it isn’t long before the romantic preamble penny drops once things turn pear-shaped.
Hausburg is absolutely stunning as Séverine, and one particularly spun-out take with her simply sitting on a park bench taking in her surroundings really showcases her acting abilities. All kinds of benign (yet strangely bizarre) things go on around her, and you can’t help but keep wondering the significance of all the cryptic enigmas. This is essentially all down to Hausburg’s handiwork as her facial expressions and eye-play truly taunt the audience and portray not only her emotional landscape but the fact that something sinister is clearly afoot. Müller also keeps up to pace nicely as the ill-fated Tom, and you really can’t blame him for accepting an offer from a complete stranger to help him win Séverine back – it’s just a real stroke of bad luck that said stranger happens to be Chef, the mastermind behind an upper crust snuff movie ring. Chef is played with absolute relish by Bunners, who is one slimy, conniving bugger and supplies most, if not all, of the fear; and his oozing evilness is perfectly mismatched against Hausburg and Müller’s performances.
As the film unravels, all too familiar rape/revenge scenarios certainly do horn in, but this is where True Love Ways really sets alight as Séverine is forced to fight for her life in a situation that is, creepily, just as forebodingly feasible outside of movie theatres. Hausburg really comes into her own here, and her initial innocent visage perfectly accentuates her loss of innocence as she is forced to take whatever means necessary to deal with this band of bigwigs in the backwoods. As tense as it all gets, I do have one major complaint, and that is that Séverine’s pursuers were a tad too butter-fingered and she manages to slip out of their grasp a little too coolly for my liking on certain occasions, despite being cornered and pretty heavily outnumbered.
That flaw aside, staying true to the film’s aesthetic, Seiler wisely refrains from resorting to any particularly gratuitous violence, preferring to let Oliver Geissler’s shooting style thicken the blood and inject brutality into violent set pieces rather than revealing all the grisly details. And then the culminating surprise comes when, despite Seiler giving priority to style over substance, True Love Ways smacks the audience with a cunning curveball that’s as unpredictable as it is perfectly plausible and draws everything to a satisfying conclusion.
Here we have a sterling example of a filmmaker forging as much as possible out of a shoestring budget. Meticulously constructed and with ruthless attention to the smallest of details, True Love Ways is a taut tale of love, catastrophic coincidences, and the extremes even the most innocent of people are capable of reaching in the name of love and survival. This picaresque thriller will undoubtedly be lapped up by art house audiences the world around, but given Seiler’s resolutely unique approach to the rape/revenge sub-genre, his impressive slice of New Wave noir will also more than cater to more traditional camps willing to give it a spin.