Dir: Emily Atef. Germany. 2008. 99mins.
One of the most powerful surviving social taboos - a mother's rejection of her new-born baby - is turned into a small but resonant drama in Emily Atef's second feature, which was one of the highlights of this year's Critic's Week in Cannes. With a subject (and budget) that might have made for a worthy TV drama, The Stranger In Me is lifted by a finely-structured script of surprising thematic depth, a sure feel for cinematic composition and lighting, and above all by a strong cast led by a magnetic Susanne Wolff, who makes us sympathise with a woman whose behaviour is, by most people's standards, repellent.
But this is the film's market dilemma: that however sensitively the subject of post-natal depression is treated here, it will be a turn-off for many distributors, despite the film's redemptive ending. It's the very soberness of Atef's approach that makes this such a powerful drama, but this may limit the film's chances with the sort of hardcore filmbuffs that pride themselves on their ability to take uncomfortable themes. The Stranger In Me is one of those commercial paradoxes: an unpretentious issue film that will work best with a wide, socially mixed audience it will almost certainly never get.
Rebecca (Wolff) and her boyfriend Julian (von Bulow) are young German thirtysomethings, living in a city apartment whose upmarket-bohemian decor seems determined more by their social milieu than by any act of volition. Rebecca is pregnant, and there's an air of happy anticipation - which is dispersed seconds after birth when we see a shocked mother recoiling from the sight, and touch, of her baby, but also horrified by her own alien feelings (hence the film's neat, double-edged title).
The assumption that a mother must love her baby is so strong that neither Rebecca's well-meaning but emotionally dim husband nor the other family members that surround her notice anything more than a touch of tiredness or stress. We are let into Rebecca's secret, but it's an uneasy complicity: one of the film's most interesting manoeuvres is the way it pushes an initially sympathetic audience into reproducing, through sheer force of involuntary emotional revulsion, the social censure that eventually rains down on the 'unnatural' mother when she goes off the rails and abandons the family nest.
But The Stranger In Me is not a Rosetta-style descent into despair; the second half is about a difficult healing process, and the way it can be blocked by society's readiness to brand the unmaternal mother as a monster, and ostracise her. It's at this point that the script turns the initially rather flat husband into a character who becomes as interesting in his own way as Rebecca.
Henner Besuch's cinematography is measured but intimate, just handheld enough to bond with its subject and suggest the desperate loneliness of her situation. But respect dominates over voyeurism - something also underlined by the delicate soundtrack of pared-back, bittersweet piano trills.
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Hanneke Van Der Tas
Johann Von Bulow