Journey to the West Side: The Heartbreaking Work of Sensitive Genius
Lost Persons Area premiered at Cannes as the first in an unfinished trilogy from Flemish director Caroline Strubbe, but follow-up feature I’m the same I’m an other has the strength to stand on its own. The preceding film clarifies the somewhat frustratingly unexplained relationship between thirty-year old Szabolcs (Zoltán Miklós Hajdu) and nine-year old Tess (Kimke Desart). Nevertheless, this perfectly distilled portrait of an unexpected bond will deeply mark anyone willing to surrender expectations to guiding intuition. Hovering somewhere between cinema and hypnotic visual poetry, I’m the same I’m an other is scored by dissonant electronic humming and patterned with lasting images of sorrow, sea and sky.
Opening the detail-sensitive wandering, a boxy baby-blue car and hollow-eyed passengers in like-colored jackets are arranged against an industrial skyline. With controlled composition giving an impression of artistic authority, it is made easy to place faith in obscurity. Coldly instructing his young travel companion to stay behind, the scruffy man then shares an elevator with a maggot-covered rat. After reaching the roof-top, he violently dry-heaves and flirts with suicidal opportunity, but ultimately returns to the solemn little girl with knotty waist-length hair. She is strangely cooperative while being tucked into the car trunk – and here begins the journey through Western Europe and formidable territories of loss.
Undiscovered by other passenger ferry travelers and given the nod from an inattentive boarder patrol officer, Tess and Szabolcs reach their seaside destination without trouble. The small cottage, identical to its seemingly deserted neighbors, is both a veritable prison and makeshift home. Though hardly conversing, their shared civility frustrates the desperate desire to understand this as a kidnapping situation, but traces of a common past surface soon enough. Tess stashes newspaper clippings about her abduction, with headlines suggesting the concurrent death of her parents to be a mutual suicide. Szabolcs similarly keeps a cache of personal photographs, but they merely hint at his meaningful attachment to the tragic family. The visceral offering from director suggests that there is an ethereal beauty about the impossibility of judging someone without a past.
Momentarily relieving tormenting silence, Tess sings playfully to herself on the beachside balcony, brought to life by a breath of outdoor air and behaving for the first time like a child. The necessary reminder of normalcy cuts to clumps of hair placed alongside orange peel bits, part of an unhealthy accumulation of strange findings that grows over time. Her existing Obsessive Compulsive type illness has evidently worsened with trauma, as the quiet devastation of superbly acted Tess is revealed through repetitive whispers and intimately filmed gestures. Szabolcs returns from a lengthy absence to find Tess with fingers bloodied from neurotic scrubbing. More troubled than he is cruel, Szabolcs is confronted with the consequences of negligence. He gives Tess knitting needles and yarn to entertain her anxious hands, an unusual act of profound empathy, as I’m the same I’m an other proves that even under extraordinary circumstances and trying sorrow, we always find a way to connect.
Reviewed on September 13th at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival – Wavelengths Programme.