Friday, January 29, 2021

Sundance with Abe: Human Factors

I’m thrilled to be covering the Sundance Film Festival for the eighth time. This year, I’m not in Park City, Utah, but watching films virtually and reviewing them as soon as I can.

Human Factors
Directed by Ronny Trocker
World Cinema Dramatic Competition

A trip can mean many things, and it’s not always a pleasant vacation that provides a sincere escape from the banalities or stresses of everyday life. Couples in particular may look forward to a change of scenery to help alleviate tensions and be enabled to see each other through more relaxed and forgiving eyes. Being somewhere else can’t heal all wounds and magically make everything better, and it may even underline problems and make them more apparent, in addition to presenting new obstacles and challenges to complicate matters further.

Jan (Mark Waschke) and Laura (Karen Margrethe Gotfredsen) are a husband-and-wife team who work as partners in a successful marketing firm in Germany. While they are away at their family vacation home in France, Laura hears sounds that make her think someone is trying to break in. A series of disquieting similar events highlight the differences in attitude expressed by Jan and Laura as they consider taking on a highly political client. Their growing marital discord also affects their children Emma (Jule Hermann), who just wants to spend time with her friends, and Max (Wanja Valentin Kube), whose innocent nature too often finds him utilized as an unwilling ally for either parent in their arguments.

This is a brooding thriller that works best because it’s never entirely clear how unnerved and unsettled audiences should be. It’s inarguably true that Laura does hear something, but the fact that even she can’t confirm what it is means that her level of anxiety is entirely dependent on what she believes rather than what she can prove. Jan, who is more eager to think about work and to dismiss unexplained peculiarities that could serve as distractions, may be even more vulnerable to whatever elements seek to sabotage his family or his business because he writes them off as nonexistent constructions of an overactive imagination.

More than anything, this is a human drama about the way that people come apart in the face of challenging circumstances. Gotfredsen compellingly portrays a woman who sees the way in which her husband no longer puts her interests first and refuses to treat her as an equal because he’s too invested in his own ideas. Waschke, whose mannerisms are reminiscent of Michael Fassbender, ensures that Jan isn’t merely one-dimensional, but instead thinks he is doing the right thing by prioritizing business success over other aspects of his life. Tracking and deducing the specifics of whether a threat does indeed exist should be a secondary endeavor, one whose disconcerting mystery isn’t quite as effective as the primary relationship narrative.


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