Luxembourg 'farm noir' separates the wheat from the chaff at TIFF

Film still showing landscape from "Gutland"

If you liked TIFF People's Choice award winner Three Billboards in Ebbing Missouri, and runner up Call Me By My Name, and still haven't had enough filmic countryside, have a look at Govinda Van Maele's Gutland. Admittedly it's the first film from Luxembourg I can recall seeing, but this little genre-defying film bodes well for the nascent cinema of the world's last Grand Duchy.

In lesser hands, Gutland could have devolved into an unfortunate Children of the Corn clone. But Gutland is a cinematic mind game set squarely in its chosen rural European context. The film can be best described as a "farm noir." The backdrop to this psychological thriller is the lushly shot (on 35mm film stock) agricultural landscapes of Schengen Europe. In contrast, its subject is the mental transmogrification of an outsider who stumbles, to his fortune or misfortune, into the intimate life of a rural community in a slightly sinister, slightly foreign land.

Jens Fauser (Frederick Lau) is a German criminal on the lam from an armed robbery, and from his two associates who want their share of the take. His decision to lie low in rural Luxembourg proves fateful. While seeking agricultural work, he hooks up with local woman Lucy (Vicky Krieps) at a beer hall harvest festival. This encounter sets in motion the machinations by which he is enveloped by the community's hospitality in a disturbing and perhaps redeeming way.

The pace of the film is deliberate as it layers on the suspense. The rural scene is set with care, control and cinematic vision. Although Luxembourg may seem like an exotic locale, the countryside and the country life will feel familiar. The flourishing landscape and the foreboding and persistent minimalistic musical score result in a feel not entirely unfamiliar to fans of rural gothic classics such as Deliverance. And much like in that film, music will come to play a disturbing role in a key scene. At times I imagined hearing a menacing twang in the spoken Luxembourgish. Although Gutland is a decidedly European film, as I watched it I couldn't help but wonder who would play Jens and Lucy in the American remake.

The farm workers and townspeople in the film, are by turns inscrutable and brutal. But part of the film's appeal is that the viewer often cannot separate their own suspicions from Jens' paranoia. When a friendly local alibis Jens with a casual lie, the viewer naturally assumes there is a nefarious motive. By the time the farmer that employs Jens inflicts casual brutalities on his own son to teach life lessons, it begins to seem normal.

The cast of Gutland is refreshingly naturalistic. The fact that the film is populated by characters that you might  encounter at a country pub goes a long way to making Gutland feel real. That the communal labour of farming is portrayed with a certain dignity also contributes to the film's verisimilitude. Agriculture continues to hold a protected place in most European societies, and the pastoral nature of country life has not yet been decimated by unchecked agribusiness. This allows for rural communities to continue to preserve the family farm and rural communities (with a little help from Schengen migrant labour). The film's minor characters are not caricatures, despite their strangeness. Gutland has an emotional integrity to it that benefits from the depth of even minor characters.

The film suffers somewhat from the lack of fully formed female characters. Lucy, whose character is central to the film, is a headstrong and independent-minded single mother at the beginning of the film. She initiates the first sexual encounter with Jens as an equal sexual partner and thereby sets in motion his erstwhile redemption. Yet in an integral scene to  Jens' unwitting transformation, she uncharacteristically becomes masochistic, goading Jens into a session of rough sex. This scene appears to have more to do with upping the sexual edge of the film for jaded audiences than with advancing the plot's otherwise  cogent surreality.

The psychological structure of the film is reminiscent of Polanski's The Tennant in that it studies how an individual can be subsumed, unwillingly, by an overbearing community. Jens Fauser begins as an opportunist trying to use a community to hide from a crime, but ends up as someone inadvertently acting in concert with this selfsame community.

If you like your thriller with a thresher, or need to know what's on the cutting edge of Luxembourg cinema, this one should factor quite high on your list.

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