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Non-Review Review: Agnosia

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.

There were a lot of reasons to get excited about Agnosia, one of the anticipated highlights of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival. The movie was written by Antonis Trashorras, the writer of The Devil’s Backbone, perhaps the film that put director Guillermo del Toro on the map. In fact, this film comes with an endorsement from del Toro himself, which has quite a large amount of weight among the film community. However, Agnosia lacks the magic or elegance of del Toro’s work, with director Eugenio Mira (whose last work was in 2004) able to craft a stylish visual design for the film – but never quite able to create a sense of magic or engagement.

99 Schwarz ballons...

I suspect that Agnosia began its life as a relatively simple and fascinating hook: a woman in a dark room mistakes a stranger for her fiancé. It’s an interesting idea, and it’s one that takes up the middle section of the film. It’s also undoubtedly the strongest section of the movie, as it has a powerful simplicity to it – alone in the dark, what if a stranger can love you better than the man you’re going to swear to spend your life with? Unfortunately, this material doesn’t lend itself to an hour-and-a-half of film, so it seems that the writer had to construct a film around this wonderful premise. And that’s where the problems begin.

The film spends its first three quarters of an hour setting up that encounter in a black room. Put simply, that’s far too long for a film to spend trying to get to a certain point. If these scenes were especially interesting or compelling in their own right, it might excuse this approach – but they feel (even as you watch them) like awkward set-up. So we get a corporate espionage thriller thrown in on top of our psychological drama, but they two elements don’t really blend particularly well.

Back in black...

The movie opens with a very stylised sequence in which weapons manufacturer Artur Prats is demonstrating his latest invention – a telescopic rifle which puts even the best telescopes on the market to shame. During the lavish (and, all credit to Artur, very theatrical demonstration), two things happen which may be linked (or may not, the film is never too bothered explaining): Artur’s young daughter Joana has a seizure and some upper-class weapons-buying types decide to shoot a horse.

Artur is aghast at this use of his weapon and decides that he will never manufacture another lens like that. Yes, let’s dwell on this for a moment. Some upper-class tosser uses a rifle (with a scope on it) to shoot a horse, and Artur decides he’s done as a weapons manufacturer. It’s not exactly Iron Man, is it? I mean, who was he planning to sell his telescopic sight to? The Salvation Army? Almost anybody who used it as he demonstrated (attached to a rifle) is probably going to kill something – be it animal or human – so why is he so bloody surprised? If he wanted to sell his long-distance sight as something to help mankind, why the hell did he strap it to a rifle for the demonstration? Why didn’t he try to sell it to astronomers or sailors? At least Tony Stark’s personal revelation came from the realisation that you can’t control arms proliferation (of course, the idea that you can is a fragile delusion, but one infinitely less naive than the one presented here), not from the shock reveal that guns occasionally shoot things. I have the image of Artur explaining the decision to his business partners, all earnest and sincere. “Yeah, you’re right,” they’ll concede, possibly sarcastically. “We should just deal with nice people.”

Of course, we all know the real reason that Artur stops building the sight. The movie needs a MacGuffin, and the idea of a “sight” fits thematically with the whole “agnosia” thing. The film needs something for Joana to know which would require kidnapping her, putting her in a room, and tricking her into believing a stranger is her husband in order to ellicit from her. That character action doesn’t demonstrate any underlying facet of old Artur Prats, it just exists to move the plot along. Which would be grand, if it wasn’t anchored in such a ridiculously stupid personal revelation.

Nobody's clean...

Similarly, Artur’s daughter, Joana, is revealed to be suffering from agnosia. It’s a psychological complaint where the subject is unable to process everything around them. That sounds pretty damn fascinating, doesn’t it? Imagine being unable to discern details of the reality that surrounds you – what would that look like? What would it sound like? It’s unreasonable to expect film (an audio-visual medium) to give you a sense of any of the other distorted senses (taste, smell, touch), but I think it’s fair to expect a little bit of ingenuity in representing the way that Joana perceives the world around her. Instead, we get the fairly banal illustration that Joana apparently views the world through a fisheye camera lens covered in vaseline.

The reason for this is fairly straight forward. Despite the fact that Joana’s condition lends the movie its title, it’s just another awkward plot device designed to set up the movie’s key premise. The film needs a reason why Joana can’t recognise that the man in the room with her isn’t her husband-to-be, and blindness wouldn’t explain why she couldn’t spot the difference in the voice. So Joana is, of course, remarkably functional. She can discern words and derive meaning, but she can’t distinguish tone, accent or voice. She can see colours, but not faces. In short, her illness is just a device to move the plot to where it needs to be.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of this, except for the fact that none of it is engaging of itself. It feels like blatant set-up, designed simply to move us along to a point where interesting things happen. This might be excusable if these elements ate up ten minutes (or maybe fifteen), but instead it takes up a third to a half of the film. By the time the movie arrives at where it wants to be, it’s almost over.

Who we are in the dark...

The scenes in the dark room are fascinating and intimate, but they’re also fleeting. We get about half-an-hour of this before the movie has moved beyond it and is trying to figure out how to wrap everything up. Then again we have the same sort of problem – things seem to happen purely to tie up everything. “I don’t leave loose ends,” one character boasts, and there’s a feeling that the move adheres to that philosophy too well. Ultimately, we’re only interested in the aftermath of events for three people: Joana, her husband and his doppelganger. However, the film insists on resolving all the messy threads that it set up during the first half.

This isn’t helped by how incredibly blunt the movie is, which insist on telegraphing various things to the audience, rather than leaving any ambiguity. For example, we are assured that Joana’s cold and distant fiancé does not genuinely love her because he frequents a brothel. Joanna’s unwitting affair with the stranger she believes to be her husband is shown to be nowhere near as horrible as his activities – because at least she didn’t know she was being unfaithful. The fact that such a thing is made so explicit undermines a lot of the tragedy – the film is endorsing the idea that her fiancé is “less worthy” of her love, rather than playing both male leads as equally tragic.

Similarly, it seems a bit redundant to show us that Joana’s doctor is a bad person by showing him to sexually aroused by young boys – while his involvement in her kidnapped isn’t exactly ambiguous, it seems the movie is trying to brand him as “truly and irredeemably evil.” Some stories do work better with simplicity, but this is a premise that is undermined by adopting such a clear-cut approach. The most fascinating locale in the film is a bedroom covered entirely in black, so a generally murky and ambiguous perspective might have served the movie better.

It's a nice day for a black wedding...

On the other hand, Mira’s cinematography does look beautiful at points (particularly during that heavily stylised opening sequence). The director knows how to work well with images, and the movie often looks lovelier than anything actually happening on screen, if that makes sense. There are some nice touches – the masks the conspirators wear, for example, which seem especially creepy and grotesque in the dimly-lit sequences – but the movie can’t quite get over its fundamental problems. It looks nice, but that’s not enough to sustain a viewer’s interest over the ninety-minute runtime.

Agnosia is a disappointing film, especially given its pedigree and endorsements. It could have been so much more, but it ends up feeling stretched out even with a relatively lean hour-and-a-half runtime. Perhaps if the movie had been as interested in what happened outside that darkened room as it was with the central identity crisis.

I don’t normally score my reviews, but the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival does give an “audience award” and asks the audience to rate the film out of four. In the interest of full and frank disclosure, my score is: 2.

2 Responses

  1. Ouch. I don’t think I would work well in a standardized four-star system. 25% hashes are more than a little drastic.

    I have to say, Darren, I am legitimately impressed by the number of articles you managed to contribute to FTLOF(N). I was only able to sneak out two related reviews around work and school :/

    • I’m a little frustrated with the four-star system they use. You can’t grade 0 on it, so 1 is the lowest you give. So if it isn’t abysmal it gets 2 by default. Which means 3 has to be average, so every thing above average ends up at 4, the highest.

      Outrage was a well-made, meandering and generic film, but it got a 3 because it wasn’t awful or just-better-than-awful. This was boring, cliché, but well-made and founded on an interesting premise. So it can’t, in fairness, be a 1. So it gets 2.

      I’m reminded of why I don’t like rating films.

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