Thursday 3 October 2019

The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea (Syllas Tzoumerkas, 2019)

The Netherlands Film Fund is one of the backers of The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea, which features a fine lead performance by Angeliki Papoulia, an actress best known for her work with Yorgos Lanthimos - namely Dogtooth, Alps and The LobsterSargasso's mood and feel are both very much in line with those found in Lanthimos' work, and Syllas Tzoumerkas' film is certainly a good fit for the rather clumsy "Weird Wave" label that's been thrown around for the past decade.  With its exposure of the darkness that lies at the heart of a seemingly sleepy town, comparisons to the work of David Lynch are as inevitable as they are helpful to the film's marketability, although to my mind it has more in common with Claire Denis' brilliant, if horrible, Les Salauds and Carol Morley's mood piece murder-mystery Out of Blue.

Papoulia plays what is quite possibly the angriest chief of police ever seen on screen, and her drunken, foul-mouthed but dogged Elisabeth strongly recalls the recent turns by Patricia Clarkson in the aforementioned Out of Blue and Nicole Kidman in Destroyer.  The film begins with Elisabeth leading a city anti-terrorist unit, but a botched raid forces her and her son to move away to a small, remote seaside town, which she thoroughly resents.  When Elisabeth isn't berating virtually everyone who crosses her path, she's drinking; sometimes, she combines these two pastimes to predictably chaotic effect.  Things get more interesting for Elisabeth when seedy lounge singer Manolis (Christos Passalis) is found dead on a beach; it's apparently a suicide, but the chief of police decides to dig deeper, which reveals a lot more about the town and its inhabitants.  Elisabeth takes a special interest in Manolis' sister, Rita (Youla Boudali, who co-wrote the film with the director), a withdrawn, timid young woman who has a grim job at an eel farm.

It's fairly clear that Elisabeth has more interest in getting to the bottom of things than the director does, and Tzoumerkas is far more concerned with peppering his film with religious imagery and nightmarish vignettes than he is with anything as trifling as the forensics of police work.  The mystery aspect, such as it is, doesn't take much solving by the viewer, but it doesn't really matter when there's such a rich, dark atmosphere to soak up, not to mention a leading actress on top form.  The supporting performances are good, too, with Passalis' standout moment coming when his creepy Manolis has an onstage meltdown and treats his audience to an expletive-heavy tirade against his, and their,  hometown; Manolis recalls Dave from Lost River, who in turn echoed Blue Velvet's Ben.

The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea is generally strong stuff - although Attenberg remains, by some distance, the best film out of the Weird Wave titles; if Sargasso has a weakness, it lies in the director's attempts to align his film with the movement via button-pushing.  After viewing the likes of Dogtooth, not many will be shocked by what is presented here, and the few explicit scenes in Tzoumerkas' film feel more tired than transgressive.  There's also a clunky, overdone analogy involving eels and the ocean of the title, which really should have been pruned back.  But, on the whole, The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea is an absorbing, atmospheric and well-made riff on the hard-boiled cop movie.  It screens at the London Film Festival today and tomorrow.

Darren Arnold