Dir. Tilman Singer; Lena Velis, Jan Bluthardt
[2.5 out of 4]
One of the most exciting continued developments of our current cultural return to the popularity of original and creative horror movies is that many emerging directors and writers choose to work in the genre. We on this site have written at length about how this has resulted in Jordan Peele becoming one of the most compelling cinematic voices currently working, and the continued success of directors like Ari Aster, Jennifer Kent, and Robert Eggers prove that horror can be a terribly fun place to work. It has also resulted in a return to engaging with the works of past greats such as David Cronenberg, Dario Argento, and John Carpenter, playing with their stylistic choices and thematic interests, re-applying them to modern horror. Such nostalgia is also emblematic of the success of projects like Stranger Things (2016-) and Halloween (2018) which capitalize on audiences’ hunger for the same cinematic nostalgia that compels creators towards homage. Tilman Singer’s directorial debut Luz (2018), which premiered last year at the Berlin Film Festival, fits nicely into this blossom of new voices in horror while also showing some of the limits of filmmaking within the realm of homage and pastiche.
Luz tells the story of young cab driver Luz Carrara (Luana Velis), also the movie’s namesake, who is being pursued by a demonic entity that wants nothing more than to possess her. We enter the story as Luz walks into the Berlin police station after having thrown herself out of her moving cab, an act that resulted in a crash and many questions from the police. We are then introduced to psychiatrist Dr. Rossini (Jan Bluthardt) who is drinking in a bar before being seduced by Nora (Julia Riedler) who claims to be Luz’s girlfriend and asks for Rossini’s help, but who also ends up being the current vessel for the unnamed demon that is pursuing Luz. The demon transfers into Rossini, who is then called upon by the police to hypnotize and interrogate Luz to understand what occurred earlier that night in terms of the car crash and the circumstances leading to it. The bulk of the film’s 70-minute runtime takes place in the police station while Rossini has Luz under hypnosis and slowly reconstructs the crash and the backstory that led to it, all while Rossini’s new demonic possession becomes more and more obvious as he progresses towards trying to take over Luz.
Luz seems first and foremost to be an attempt to play with the standards of the late 1970s and early 1980s arthouse horror. The official synopsis makes a point of stating that Singer “pays homage to horror masters David Cronenberg, Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci, while infusing the genre with a fresh take of his own,” and this comes through obviously when watching it. Singer’s visual language is striking, favoring a vibrant and expressionistic color scheme that is in many ways quite painterly. He ties it directly to the tone of each sequence, such as how he starts the bar scene where Rossini and Nora meet in mellow blues and greys that are joined by neon greens and flashes of red as the emotions and intentions escalate from conversation to entrancement. Elsewhere the interior of the police station during Luz’s hypnosis is beige and muted, therefore placing the emphasis on the recreation that is happening, and making the cuts to close-ups on Rossini’s bloodshot eyes and Luz’s blue and white ball cap all the more impactful. The approach also shares DNA with Argento’s Suspiria (1977), albeit with a more restrained look than the technicolor blood and coloration that Argento favored, but nonetheless the impressionistic approach is clearly borrowed and done well.
However, for all the effort and thought that Singer obviously put into blending his visual language with those of his precursors whom he wishes to pay homage to, he seems to have spent too much on that and cared not as much for the language he used to build the story and plot. Many of Cronenberg’s, Argento’s, and even David Lynch’s films that this film seems to draw on have a lot of mythology and context to ground some of their more experimental tendencies. But we are thrown into Luz’s world in a way that gives little context for whom this eponymous woman is, who is following her, and why she is in the police station to begin with. We know there is a crash, but the circumstances are vague, and I was even unclear on the existence of the demon until I paused the movie and read the synopsis, which I normally try to avoid doing. Singer slowly delivers most of this background information as the movie goes on, but it is distracting in that you spend most of the time trying to decide if you missed something. I don’t need for the situation to be fully spelled out at the beginning, but a little more context on how Luz came into contact with the demon, why he is following her, and why we’re in Berlin would better ground the story. The success of the filmmakers Singer is paying homage to lies in the fact that their stories are visually striking and engaging on a base storytelling level, and Singer’s writing never rises above merely serviceable for his visual flourishes. Maybe with a longer runtime we could have had more time for context, but as is, it is hard for me to focus on how much I enjoyed the visual style when what sticks out is the struggling storytelling.
Even with my mind preoccupied with the writing, Velis still managed to draw me in during the most confusing parts on the merit of her performance alone. She is asked to spend the majority of the film in character as someone under hypnosis recreating a night of driving and conversation while being mostly alone in a conference room without an actual taxi or other actors to play off of. It is a wonderful layering of performance within a performance, as she also captures the frazzled and damaged state of someone who is just not quite right, and even if we don’t know enough about her to understand where she is coming from, Velis captures an essence that is believable and entrancing enough to make you wish you could spend more time with her. While under hypnosis, Luz sits in a chair and believes she is driving her taxi, and while Singer layers the sounds from the airport and the drive over what we see, Velis brings us into the recreation by reacting perfectly to the sounds and stimuli, bopping to music from the radio, yelling at a passersby, and having a one-sided conversation with an unknown patron we never see nor hear. All the while, she seems just on the verge of realizing she is under hypnosis, always moments away from breaking through and escaping Rossini’s demonic presence as it works harder to possess her. In a movie of rather forgettable performances, it is even more impressive that Velis rises above what happens around her.
Luz functions for me as a broadly imperfect but exciting introduction to a directorial voice that obviously has something to say, even if he hasn’t quite yet figured out what that means. Luz is Singer’s final project from his time at the Academy of Media Arts Cologne, and so is no doubt the result of limited time and resources, which may explain some of the shortcomings, while also amplifying his successes knowing that he did so with such limited resources. I don’t know if he will continue working in the horror genre, but I’m fascinated to see how he may evolve as a storyteller who learns how to better blend homage and original storytelling within whatever genre he chooses.