Victoria Film Festival reviews: Historical thriller is visually stunning

Times Colonist movie writer Michael D. Reid is covering the Victoria Film Festival. Go to timescolonist.com./VFF for daily updates. Ratings are out of five stars.

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Demimonde
Cineplex Odeon, tonight, 9:15 p.m.
Vic Theatre, Feb. 14, 2 p.m.
Rating: three and a half stars

Edgy, erotic and richly evocative, this historical thriller from Attila Szasz, the Hungarian director who brought The Ambassador of Bern to last year’s festival, is worth seeing if atmospherics and visual splendour are high on your priority list. Based on a horrific true story that occurred a century ago, Szasz’s throwback opens with the grisly discovery of a corpse stuffed into a basket found floating in the Danube before revealing the how and why. A compelling if somewhat slender portrait of jealousy, betrayal and survival instincts unravels as we journey into the life of Elza Magnas, a celebrated, self-absorbed courtesan whose nasty behaviour complicates her relationships with a heartless wealthy client, her longtime housekeeper with whom she has a love-hate relationship, and her young and naive new maid.

Five Nights in Maine
Cineplex Odeon
Thursday, Feb. 11, 9:15 p.m.
Rating: three stars

Creating a drama that persuasively evokes grief in the wake of a tragedy poses a unique challenge. It’s to writer-director Maris Curran’s credit that her feature debut avoids many of the pitfalls that can derail such films. It helps that Curran’s beautifully understated meditation on grief has been so well-cast. David Oyelowo, who most recently played Martin Luther King in Selma, and Oscar-winner Dianne Wiest bring impressive naturalism to their restrained performances as a devastated Atlanta widower mourning the sudden loss of his wife, and his hostile, cancer-stricken mother-in-law who half-heartedly invites him to visit her for a week in rural Maine. Some viewers might be resistant to the way Curran time-releases relevant details about why these frustrated adversaries behave the way they do, especially Wiest’s passive-aggressive matriarch. However, Curran’s choice to focus on unspoken resentments at a deliberately unhurried pace serves the picture’s purposes. The film’s chief assets include how sparingly she uses flashbacks to piece things together, subtly observing the way our perspectives on loved ones can change to the point of idealizing them when they’re gone. She also conjures a palpable sense of melancholy enhanced by cinematographer Sofian El Fani’s close-ups and shots of bleak New England exteriors. Neither manipulative nor maudlin, this film doesn’t offer any easy answers, so don’t expect narrative tidiness.

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