The moment Federico (Kentucker Audley) falls in lust with beautiful bullshiter Vivian (Lindsay Burdge) he’s in trouble. He’s playing a gig one night when he spots her in the audience; an entrancing siren of the underworld bathed in red light. Federico sings a lyric referring to what he’s thinking about when he looks at a lover in the mirror. Transfixed under Vivian’s gaze, the words acquire a dangerous, foreboding charge. When she suddenly disappears, the instantly smitten musician dashes off right in the middle of his performance, but she’s nowhere to be found. An ominous rumble follows thoughts about her which consume him later that night, and so begins this boy meets girl horror story masquerading as an art film—or maybe it’s the other way around given the third act’s full submersion into a fragmented, hallucinogenic dream state.
When they do finally meet and go out on a series of awkward dates, the confusion and freshness of their acquaintance which tongue-tied Federico wants so desperately to become love, has a beguiling charm that would almost work as rom-com, were it not for an atmosphere far more unsettling and sinister than this sort of stuff usually plays. His overeager admission that she’s already won a piece of his heart is disconcerting, and there’s something strange about how she chooses not to hear this, offsetting his earnest intensity with disconcerting humour and a joke about how she dates at least three times a week for free food and drinks. They are together and apart in the same moment, around which, Dorothea Tachler’s spacey, guitar score places a vacuum, a tumble of picked apart notes where time seems to fold in on itself, and a harbinger of the place Federico will eventually end up.
After hanging out together a few times, Federico insists on going to her place and meeting her kids, mentioned only once by Vivian as a disinterested afterthought. This request is met with an incredulous, boney smirk that makes light of everything in a way that’s far creepier than Federico’s demands. Vivian tells him that she’s presently between homes and instead, they go to an apartment where she’s supposed to be cat-sitting. When they get there, not only is it obvious that Vivian’s never been here before, but the place is clearly cat free. When he confronts her about this she disappears as she is want to do.
Much of the first half of the film follows Federico on wild goose chases through the city whenever he looses Vivian, inquiring of strangers and even desperate enough to plaster the streets in ‘missing posters’ at one point. Wandering round in a sweat-slicked vest (as he did in Sun Don’t Shine), Kentucker Audley’s old school masculinity is that of a young Mitchum or Brando, a stocky, barrel-chested type that’s rarely seen on screen these days, and it’s interesting to observe his steady emasculation as he hangs on the phone, leaving Vivian increasingly frantic voicemails.
A Teacher’s Lindsey Burdge (moving from seduced to seducer with frightening assertion) is a nightmarish inversion of the manic pixie dream girl, so common to indie films featuring brooding, socially unhinged males like Federico. Far from a one-dimensional female character who only seek the happiness of the male protagonist, Vivian is an active force, appearing at her own will and transforming Federico by colonising his mind and imagination. If MPDG’s only exist in the sensitive minds of misogynistic males, Vivian has bought up all the real estate there, leaving Federico unable to think of anything else.
One ordinary day, they’re walking together when Vivian is abducted off the street and packed into a limo. Federico jumps in a cab and gives chase, pursuing her up into the backwoods of upstate New York. There he encounters a guy and his wife (wearing the titular mask) bathing naked in a river and is followed wherever he goes, by an accordion player and a woman having a one-sided argument down her phone, even though there’s nobody on the other end of the line. Lost in their own world and unresponsive to his questions, they all seem to be in on it somehow and might Vivian actually be connected with the group?
Sometimes when we dream. we slip right out of one nightmare, only to be terrorized by the next. After Ricky Shane Reid’s film jumps with wild abandon down a foxhole of more sensory headspace from which it never emerges, the ambiguous ending will no doubt frustrate those looking for readable explanations. What will work on anyone who sees the film, is a malign mood that exerts a chokehold from the first frame. Like the most potent of nightmares that haunt our waking hours, the film follows you out of the darkened cinema, still playing on your mind days later.
First published by Vérité Film Magazine on September 29, 2013