Film Review: Mortem

This initially bewitching throwback to the French New Wave and Cocteau turns into a turgid and frequently laughable pseudo-philosophical locked-room argument between a woman and her soul.

There is dark gorgeousness aplenty in the opening sequences of Eric Atlan’s black-and-white, pseudo-philosophical experiment Mortem. A blonde motorcyclist with wind-flapped hair and a searching glint in her eyes is roaring down tree-lined roads in the dark of night. A van appears to be heading her way. Then there is another motorcycle, gaining on her. She finds refuge in a grand old house where a pair of women with drag-queen hauteur announce that they’re about to close up. However, the motorcyclist is told that she can stay if she likes. Something out there on the road having frightened her, she agrees. Once she’s in her room, the whole purpose of the film becomes clear, and not for the better.

From the time she enters the house, the motorcyclist, Jena (Diana Rudychenko), is being shadowed by another woman whom she can’t see, named only “The Soul” in notes. Daria Panchenko plays the soul as a drifting wisp with the sharp eyes of a hunter, focused right on Jena. In Jena’s room, the soul begins to toy with her, whispering apparently frightening dialogue, before finally becoming visible. By the time Jena realizes that she’s in a room with a potentially malevolent spirit, it’s too late for her: The door is locked. It’s too late for the film as well, because that is the point when Atlan takes his story from the fantastical to the fatuous.

Seemingly conceived as some grand metaphorical battle against death—it is unclear what exactly the personification of the soul is meant to represent—Mortem quickly spins itself into a crushing void of repetition and blather. The actresses spiral and pivot around each other in the claustrophobic room, murmuring combative inanities back and forth. Little else transpires over the film’s punishingly obtuse 94 minutes. They argue about death, and about the soul. A game is played with a deck of cards which are all blank, except for one that shows death. At one point, Jena’s love, Aken (Stany Coppet), shows up to express confusion about what exactly is going on, and then departs. He is a source of contention between the two women, who even the densest audience member can tell will end up naked and entangled well before the film is over.

If nothing else, Mortem certainly becomes its own creature well before the end. Many scenes consciously evoke the clever, modernistic mythmaking of Cocteau, and there’s a gothic quality to the suffocating quality of the hotel itself that can’t help but be mindful of films like Diabolique. These nods are definitely intentional, with Atlan trying to replicate a Nouvelle Vague style with digital filmmaking. Other reference points are perhaps less intentional, like the aroma of Eurotrash softcore that exudes from the bitchy hotel managers (every shot they’re in seems about 30 seconds away from turning into a lesbian vampire grindhouse flick), or the echoes of self-indulgent con artists like Jean-Claude Brisseau. But the story and characters, or lack thereof, are uniquely Atlan’s. If only that were a good thing.