A stunning directorial debut from the actress Tuva Novotny
Dir/scr. Tuva Novotny. Norway. 2018. 98 mins
Is there something in the air in Norway? Perhaps it’s no coincidence that two of the most harrowing and powerful films of 2018 have come from there, both dealing with teenagers in intensely traumatic situations, and both using audaciously immersive long-take techniques. One of those films was Erik Poppe’s U- July 22, about the Utoya massacre of 2011, and it’s tempting to speculate that in some implicit way, Tuva Novotny’s Blind Spot might be an indirect response to that national experience of grief and horror. Whether or not that’s the case, Novotny’s fearless debut feature is one of the most emotionally blasting cinematic experiences imaginable, daringly executed and superbly controlled – but in a way that consistently engages us with its characters’ emotional processes, never distracting us with its undeniable technical brilliance.
Blind Spot’s drama becomes immersive in a genuinely emotional way
The film will be a must for festivals and for distributors willing to take on a film that’s accessible albeit a tough sell in subject matter.
This is a stunning feature debut for Tuva Novotny, who has previously directed an episode of TV series Lillyhammer but is best known as an actor, her international appearances including Eat Pray Love, Borg McEnroe and Alex Garland’s recent Annihilation. Blind Spot is particularly audacious in that it doesn’t give us any clues as to where it’s going. The Oslo-set drama begins in undemonstrative realist mode at a teenage girls’ handball practice session, then follows one girl, early-teens Tea (Nora Mathea Øien), through to the changing room, where she’s silent and seems somewhat apart from the other, taller, more confident girls.
The camera then trails her and another girl, Anna (Ellen Heyerdahl Janzon), as they walk home in the twilight, chatting quietly and inconsequentially about homework and discussing their classmates, whom they dismiss as mean and interested only in boys and make-up. Dressed almost identically, they’re clearly outsiders, and clearly close. When they part company, the camera continues to follow Tea home, up the stairs of her housing estate block to a cosy flat, where her smiling mother Maria (Pia Tjelte) says she’ll be with Tea in a moment, as soon as she’s got younger child Bjørn to sleep. Tea fixes herself a sandwich and a glass of milk, and goes into her bedroom.
At this point, a spoiler warning is necessary, because this is where the film takes a shocking turn. The action quickly shifts – again seamlessly, in the same single take that continues for the rest of the film – to the street outside, where Maria is gasping in shock, barely able to breathe, as an ambulance arrives to rush Tea to hospital. For the rest of the film, Pia Tjelta gives a performance of emotional distress that’s all the more extraordinary as for much of the time it’s wordless, Maria’s gasps, tears and strangled breaths telling the story of her pain and terror. As Tea’s equally anguished father Anders (Anders Baasmo Christiansen) arrives - expressing his distress in the form of aggression before fainting in shock - Tea’s grandfather Hasse (Per Frisch) stands reassuringly by, while patient, sympathetic healthcare worker Martin (Oddgeir Thune) uses his psychological skills to guide the family members through their night of hell.
The film takes place convincingly in real time over 98 minutes, and we’re never aware of any temporal sleight of hand, although some implicit narrative contraction is presumably at work, shortening ambulance and car journeys; in fact, one long sequence shows Maria alone in a taxi, just taking stock of her emotions, and it’s one of the merits of Blind Spot that it allows emotion rather than event to take its due place in the time necessary.
Often, when film-makers use long takes – or indeed, single takes, like Poppe in his film, or Sebastian Schipper in Victoria – we find ourselves wondering how long a single shot can be extended, or puzzling over the intricacy of the camera choreography. Here, however, we stop worrying about such matters early on, as Blind Spot’s drama becomes immersive in a genuinely emotional way – the film also tactfully and subtly negotiating its shifts of viewpoint, from Tea to Maria, then later to Martin as he tries to establish the state of play in the hospital’s emergency room.
There’s only one point at which the film appears, perhaps necessarily, to tread water, and that’s a discussion between the family, Martin and a doctor about what lies ahead, and about Tea’s troubled history. Compared to the emotional dynamism of the rest, it appears little static and even a little theatrical, but perhaps no accident that early on, there’s a passing reference to Ibsen, reminding us to the fact that this school of Norwegian realism has its theatrical roots.
Newcomer Øien is terrifically natural and relaxed at the start, making it all the more shocking that – as Maria discovers – a girl like Tea may be utterly unknowable to her loving parents. As Maria, Tjelta gives one of the most challenging and, no doubt, emotionally and physically demanding performances of the year, while Oddgeir Thune’s calm, compassionate presence as Martin represents something of a tribute to the human challenges that healthcare workers rise to daily.
Jonas Alarik’s elastically mobile photography is an astonishing but entirely non-exhibitionistic achievement, and plaudits are due to Steadicam operator Knut Kirkaas Pederson for a championship performance.
Production companies: Nordisk Film Production
International sales: Trust Nordisk, firstname.lastname@example.org
Producer: Elizabeth Kvithyll
Screenplay: Tuva Novotny
Cinematography: Jonas Alarik
Production design: Nina Bjerch Andresen
Music: Peter Albrechtsen
Main cast: Pia Tjelta, Nora Mathea Øien, Anders Baasmo Christiansen, Oddgeir Thune, Per Frisch