Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Alexandra's Project (2003)

The camera moves across a tranquil, dulcet suburban neighbourhood, replete with lush green lawns, amidst soothing ambient sounds, and stops in front of a house, the indoors of which  are to be the location of most of the film that follows. We are introduced to an almost happy family of four, two kids Emma and Sam, and the protagonists, the lead characters, Steve (Gary Sweet) and Alexandra (Helen Buday). Steve is a perpetually pepped up happy man, and is a successful employee with a successful company. He loves his family very much and takes utmost care of all their needs. The kids look more than happy too.

What sticks out as unusual in this happy frame is Alexandra. There is a distinct sadness in her eyes. Those forlorn glances and the short mirror monologue in which she spits and snaps "never be sorry" makes it more than clear that Alexandra has something bottled up. An eerie, suspenseful background score accompanying Alexandra’s mysterious, empty stares hints at a sense of foreboding. 

It’s Steve’s birthday, and after having a blithely chirpy time with the kids at home that morning, he is given a surprise party and a promotion at work that makes him jump with joyous excitement and he just can’t wait to go home and celebrate the double occasion with his family. Upon returning home that evening though, Steve gets the surprise of his life! The house is all deserted and dark; no Alexandra, no kids, just a gift-wrapped video tape that says "Play me". Steve, going along with this surprise, plugs in the tape that is recorded by Alexandra herself. The video initially begins as a family home film wherein the members wish Steve a very happy birthday in their respective ways. An amused Steve watches with amazement as he ponders about the unusual nature of the surprise. Soon the amazement turns into shock and disgust as the tape progresses and turns into a punishing exercise in grueling visual torture that leaves Steve aghast and humiliated! 

That is as much as one can say about what ensues, without giving away too much, for this film is all about the detail trapped in that little video tape. Throughout the film, we, the viewers, become unsuspecting spectators to a surprise in hell, and just like Steve we are forced to watch Alexandra’s twisted little project that is a literal cringe fest, especially for any married man. But what are the motivations of Alexandra behind making that tape? Where are Alexandra and the kids now?

All of these questions are gradually answered via the contents of the tape and therein lies the crux of this sordid story called "Alexandra’s Project" (2003). Writer-director Rolf De Heer unleashes a psychological assault on his audiences with his twisted imagination. He makes the atmosphere considerably unsettling with the minimal, creepy score that complements the claustrophobic, dark interiors of the house the film is shot in. The use of lighting is especially noteworthy in this regard; the contrast between light and dark giving an odd, grim beauty to each frame. There are a couple of interesting twists and turns within the narrative, enough to nail the viewer to his seat. A good amount of tension is built right up to the part the video reaches its turning point and keeps the viewer guessing about the culmination of the terrifying situation Steve might have landed himself in. The execution is spot on, and it takes a fair amount of finesse to build an engaging product out of nothing but a room and a single character watching a video tape.

Where the film disappoints is in the central premise itself. All said and done it seems a little too farfetched for a woman to resort to such a ghastly surprise, whatever the motivation. Moreover how much of it is justified, we never really know, for there are no back stories. Everything has to be taken at face value and what is summarized in Alexandra’s video. That doesn’t prevent us from choosing who to root for, though. If Alexandra had a point, one wonders if that was the only way to put it across. Whatever happened to good old heart to heart one-on-ones? Steve seems to be a pretty accommodating guy, at least from whatever is shown to us!

Also off-putting are some of the things shown on the tape. It is one thing for a film to be provocative and effective in a powerful way as to have a strong impact on the viewer. But Rolf De Heer gets a little too carried away and almost veers towards borderline pornography rendering some events in the film far too gratuitous, and existing only for the sake of delivering cheap, voyeuristic thrills. The proceedings seem all the more contrived, given Alexandra’s actual grouse that is revealed later. It makes the eventual presentation in her project seem rather unconvincing, and hence, whatever message there is, gets diluted!

Rolf De Heer’s film gains some success only as a gripping, superbly acted, well executed psychological thriller. The two leads deliver powerful performances. While Gary Sweet hits bulls-eye with his extremely convincing portrayal of an unsuspecting husband who gets the shock of life, Helen Buday is equally impressive with her brave, unabashed performance of the troubled wife. Excuse the motivations and the accompanying contrivances, and you will find yourself enjoying "Alexandra’s Project" as a sadistic psychological thriller reminiscent of a certain Michael Haneke film.

"Alexandra’s Project" is a potent, uncompromising film that’s disturbing as hell, and while it may be thematically flawed, it is the kind of film that won't be able to let go of your mind for a long while. Venture only if you must.

Score: 7/10

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