When a film leans heavily into a retro aesthetic, I sometimes wonder how much is homage and how much of it is an affectation for cachet. Homage I’m fine with, but I have a hard time with filmmakers posturing for cred. I say this because there are times when the old school veneer does all of the heavy lifting; nods to other movies become the main focus rather than the current story being told or, more importantly, the filmmaker’s own original ideas. That’s a long way of saying that I dislike retro aesthetics as a crutch and prefer the choice to complement and enhance the material.
Tilman Singer’s Luz makes the retro look work well with what he’s doing. The look recalls European horror movies of the early 1980s, but it’s not a film that relies on the look alone. Luz is a student thesis film that built a strong following on the festival circuit, and it feels like the 16mm grain simultaneously hides the budget constraints while bolstering production values. There is more going on in this spare student horror movie than film textures and thrift shop couture.
In terms of its retro DNA, Luz feels like a blend of Andrzej Zulawski and Lucio Fulci, but with an unexpected dash of Bertolt Brecht. That avant garde element is what makes Luz so formally and creatively fascinating even if the narrative is a little bit thin.
Director: Tilman Singer
Release Date: July 19, 2019 (limited)
Luz opens in a sleepy police station. It’s a static, extended take. The shot is inert for so long that it taxed even my slow-cinema-loving patience, though this stillness is an intentional choice. The young woman in frame freaks out. She’s Luz (Luana Velis), a taxi driver who looks to be in some bad state. We then see two people in an empty bar. There’s a psychiatrist, Dr. Rossini (Jan Bluthardt), and a young woman named Nora (Julia Riedler). They flirt, and in the process Nora reveals that her old classmate Luz had a talent for conjuring spirits while in school back in Chile. Eventually Luz becomes a tale of demonic possession as well as demonic obsession.
I mentioned that the film’s story was thin, but it doesn’t overstay at a lean 70 minutes. Still, Luz takes a bit of time setting its pieces up. Singer’s style carries the film in its opening stretch, and I noticed myself enjoying more of the retro touches than the unfolding story. There’s awkward flirting in the bar, which seems like the sort of thing you’d see in a sleazy Italian horror film, but it’s done winklingly. Something is going to happen—it’s a hunt masquerading as a seduction, and the prey is too thirsty to catch on. Back at the police station, Luz repeats a profaned version of the Lord’s prayer. It sounds more like the trespasses of a naughty schoolgirl rather than the incantations of a spiritualist, and yet there’s something so eerie any time I hear a whispered evil prayer.
Luz picked up for me as these two narrative threads finally started to intertwined. It begins with a violent bodily convulsion, like something Isabelle Adjani might have done in Zulawski’s masterpiece Possession. We’re then propelled into the film’s centerpiece. In order to interrogate Luz properly, she is placed under hypnosis. While in the hypnotic state, she reenacts the events of the evening that brought her here. She’s in her cab in her mind, and yet she’s really just sitting in a chair in an empty conference room in the police station. She’s observed and guided through her memories, yet the people looking on don’t really exist for Luz. They’re like stage managers facilitating her recreation of her memories.
Singer’s style is masterful throughout this extended Brechtian sequence. He may not have the budget to shoot on location, but he can artfully suggest those locations. We get the sound effects of the road and an airport. Luz looks into a jerry-rigged rearview mirror and tells off would-be fares. Occasionally there’s a shot from within Luz’s cab, the cut to the moment within an actual car matched to the Luz’s reaction in the empty room. The way Luz recreates the memories of the evening mirrors the way an audience buys into the reality of a theater production; the way the interrogators guide her through her memories mirrors the way the audience attempts to discern an unfolding story. When an obscuring fog sets in, the claustrophobic menace increases.
From this hypnotic interrogation until the end, Luz becomes a fascinating exercise in cinematic storytelling on a shoestring budget. All of the creative decisions are made out of necessity, yet they enhance the work. That’s the potential of constraints in writing and in art. Even with fewer tools and resources to work with, the quality of someone’s imagination will find a way to be expressed. Even if the story feels thin, the craft on display makes up for it.
I don’t want to say too much about the motivations of the villain in Luz. Then again, I think the official synopsis gives away some of the game by saying that love is involved. “Love” is misleading. This is a movie about obsession, certainly, and about demonic possession, but possessing someone isn’t love. Luz is maybe more accurately described as a supernatural stalker story. In those terms, the lo-fi and occasionally otherworldly images in Luz become even more chilling.
When a promising director makes their debut, you often hear people say “Give that filmmaker a budget so we can see what they can really do.” With Singer, I almost want him to continue working with budgets that aren’t sufficient. Singer would likely figure out a more interesting way to present his story. That’s the joy of watching something like Luz. To make something out of practically nothing. The act feels like a wonderful bit of conjuration magic. Someone give Singer a camera and a few rooms so we can see what other tricks he has up his sleeve.