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Theatrical Review

Music Box Films; 109 minutes

Director: Cate Shortland

Written by on February 11, 2013 

Cate Shortland‘s Lore is a frustrating film to watch, because Shortland is so clearly a talented filmmaker — vibrantly attuned to the syntax of nature in a way that recalls Andrea Arnold — and yet her narrative choices here are as misguided as they were exciting in her previous Somersault. Like Arnold’s recent Wuthering Heights, Lore seems only tangentially interested in the real meat of its story: on a disappointingly substantial number of occasions, Shortland sidesteps potentially fascinating character dynamics for a shock-value impact that feels designed more to show off her atmospheric skills than actually contribute productively to the narrative at hand. Lore has the elements of a psychologically original World War II picture, but Shortland is constantly avoiding the intrigue of her characters and their situation in order to depict other, far less interesting things: explicit violence, blunt symbolism, gasp-craving sexuality, and the like.

Based on one of the three novellas that comprise British author Rachel Seiffert‘s Man Booker Prize-shortlisted novel The Dark Room, Lore begins during the waning days of Nazism. Lore (Saskia Rosendahl), short for Hannelore, is a mature, stern-looking teenager, intensely informed by the Nazi doctrine that has been ingrained in her since childhood. Her father, “Vati” (Hans-Jochen Wagner), is an SS officer, a big, burly man whose work often keeps him away from his many children. Her mother, “Mutti” (Ursina Lardi), is an acidic, distant woman, clearly bonded to her husband by belief rather than natural attraction. A tense early scene has Lore looking in on her parents as her father attempts, pretty unsuccessfully, to put the moves on his wife. It’s the first of many sexual interludes centered around the title character that are forced into the story, but more about that later.

The family’s existence is thrown askew when Vati announces that they must pick up their things and move to a residence deep within the Black Forest. A subsequent shot has Vati burning documents that could come back to haunt him later if left unscathed. Inside, Mutti, visibly upset at being pulled out of her swanky house on such short notice, packs as much high-priced jewelry as her suitcases will hold, while Lore prepares her siblings upstairs. When they finally reach the isolated cabin, Vati’s immediate departure is unsurprising — it’s the soon-to-come absence of Mutti, rather, that thrusts Lore and her siblings into a panic. With Hitler’s suicide burying any influence our central family once held, Lore is essentially transformed into a desperate mother-figure overnight. Mutti gives her directions to their grandmother’s place in Hamburg and tells Lore to take the children there, but it’s a journey easier said than done: the obvious physical challenges of such a long trek are compounded by the Allied-dominated checkpoints that spell disaster for the family’s Nazi-sympathizing identity.

In this sense, Lore adopts the general outline — if not the conventional pacing — of a road-trip movie, with Lore leading her brothers and sisters through the forest in search of a safe route to Hamburg. Along the way, they run into a curious wanderer named Thomas (Kai Malina). The Jewish badge tucked within Thomas’s papers is a warning sign for Lore, who’s still unwilling to shake the prejudices that have been repeated to her for so long. But Lore’s much-younger siblings — there’s even an infant among them — are more impressionable, and they all take to Thomas’s well-meaning aid rather quickly. This ideological detachment between Lore and her siblings — she fighting to remain loyal to what her parents taught her, while they forge ahead, appropriately fickle for their age — is one of the more interesting truths the film explores, though I’m not sure Shortland makes the most of it. She’s too preoccupied with the sexual-awakening aspects of Lore’s psyche, which don’t seem to fit logically into the overall story of this film. Would Lore really have the time or the desire to experiment with intercourse when she’s starving, dodging imprisonment, and battling the elements to help her family survive?

This sensual coming-of-age tale was, of course, something that developed much more organically in Somersault, Shortland’s directorial debut. That film, which introduced Abbie Cornish (Bright Star, Limitless) and Sam Worthington (Avatar) to international audiences, was a realistic platform for those dynamics, because they represented the foremost concern of Cornish’s character. Lore, on the other hand, is a film with plenty to offer on a thematic level, and yet Shortland is bizarrely insistent on devoting a needlessly hefty amount of screen time to Lore’s carnal appetites. It helps that Shortland realizes these moments with ample visceral firepower, but they’re undeniably flat when compared to some of the other threads — the immediate post-war interaction between a Nazi girl and a Jewish boy, the disparity between Lore’s sensibilities and those of her siblings — that could’ve been better emphasized. Interestingly, then, the very aspect that propelled Somersault is the one that holds Lore back.

There’s one area where the two films are seamlessly connected, though, and that’s in the acting — precisely, the performance found in the leading actress. In her first-ever turn, newcomer Rosendahl gives the film a strong, gripping anchor, her rigid demeanor speaking volumes about how intensely discouraging her future appears to be. As it stands, though, Shortland’s investment in the character is inconsistent. Her tendency to film Rosendahl in tight, skin-revealing close-ups is almost identical to her handling of the surrounding natural elements, and this develops a connection between Rosendahl and the film’s effectively muddy locale that’s more monotonous than enlightening, as if Shortland’s devotion to her lead character isn’t any greater than her fascination with faces blown to pieces from deep gunshot wounds or the shredded corpses of rape victims. These horrific sights lend Lore an uneven rhythm, with Shortland usually following them up with a handful of throwaway touches designed to give the audience a minute or two to recover from the shocking — but hardly original — content.

It’s perhaps Shortland’s work with cinematographer Adam Arkapaw that saves the film, keeping it afloat with bleakly gorgeous colors and landscapes even as the drawing of the title character dwindles over time. Arkapaw has been on a roll lately, breaking out a couple of years ago with David Michôd‘s Animal Kingdom before moving on to the even grislier textures of last year’s The Snowtown Murders, directed by Justin Kurzel. (He’s also the lenser on Jane Campion‘s seven-part mini-series Top of the Lake, which is near the top of my must-see list.) Comparing the palettes of The Snowtown Murders and Lore, you get a picture of a cinematographer with an almost absurd level of flexibility: the former film, concealed in drab grays and overcast skies, is as hauntingly colorless as Lore is hauntingly colorful, doused in a range of thriving colors and tones, the sharpest of which has to be Rosendahl’s conflicted blue eyes.

Lore is currently in limited release.


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