Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
July 2015

Hungry Hearts

Growing pains

Domestic bliss turns into eerie psychological terror in Saverio Costanzo's 'Hungry Hearts'

Hungry Hearts
IFC Films
Director: Saverio Costanzo
Screenplay: Saverio Costanzo, based on the novel by Marco Franzoso
Starring: Adam Driver, Alba Rohrwacher, Roberta Maxwell, Jake Weber and David Aaron Baker
Not rated / 1 hour, 49 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)

We talk about how movies make us feel. Generally speaking we're referring to our emotions, and after that our psychological reactions. Movies (even bad ones) do a good job pushing those particular buttons. How we feel physically only rarely comes up - and that goes for the characters we're watching, too. It's a lot easier to express (and understand) what they feel rather than how they feel.

Saverio Costanzo's Hungry Hearts is an unusually physical movie. So much of its potency stems from the physical discomfort in which it places its characters - what they feel, what they smell, what is happening to their bodies. (Well, one body in particular.) This is a confined, sweaty, pungent film. Naturally, that trickles down to psychological and emotional states of mind - indeed, it's probably best categorized as psychological horror - but it's corporeal in a way I haven't quite seen since David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis. The physical state of everything in Hungry Hearts - the characters, the walls and doors that enclose them, the camera that confines them - is paramount. It is the film's dominant effect.

It's easy to recognize the influence of European cinema of the 1960s and 1970s on Costanzo's aesthetic. While most have quickly cited Polanski (which is only natural, given the claustrophobic apartment setting and burgeoning madness at the heart of it), an equally appropriate marker might be Buñuel. Costanzo begins the film by trapping his characters in a distinctly Buñuelian way - they are together in a public bathroom, and they cannot escape.

It's a two-part bathroom - with a door separating the toilet area and the sink area. On the left is the door to the hallway, which will not open, no matter how hard they pull, now matter how hard they twist the knob. Jude (Adam Driver) might try kicking the door down, but there's not quite enough space in this tiny, tiny bathroom. Banging on the door and yelling doesn't work, either - it seems no one can hear them.

To make matters worse for these two strangers - Jude and Mina (Alba Rohrwacher) - the former has just finished being sick in the toilet. The resulting stench is enveloping them and there is, for the time being, no way out of it. The window won't open, either. Their tight physical proximity has suddenly become something out of a nightmare. She's holding her nose and trying not to inhale. He's profusely apologizing for the smell. He keeps banging on the door. He takes out his cell phone to call the restaurant and ask them to open the bathroom door from the outside. But it's a Chinese restaurant - he's not sure if they understood his request.

This continues in an unbroken shot for several minutes (and, amusingly enough, this turns out to be the film's Meet Cute), in a masterful display of establishing mood. Costanzo has not only trapped them together, surrounded by filth, for a seemingly endless series of awkward and increasingly desperate glances and exchanges, he's also taken away a bit of the physical space such characters might typically enjoy, shooting in a tightened 1.66:1 ratio (a common aspect ratio among European filmmakers from the aforementioned eras). Practically all they can do is squirm.

Beginning the film in such discomfort pays off exquisitely. It's not long before we're joining the two on their wedding (which itself is shot in close quarters) and soon after to the birth of their child. At which point things get even more uncomfortable, physically and otherwise. The bulk of the film centers around the ambiguous physical well-being of their infant son. Even before giving birth, Mina had begun to exhibit strangely paranoid behavior - distrust of the doctors treating her, avoidance of the outdoors. And after the birth, she ostensibly barricades herself in the apartment she shares with Jude and insists on administering a mysterious diet - some ambiguous combination of new-age and vegan impulses - to their newborn, much to the chagrin of Jude and the doctors he consults.

As the baby's health deteriorates and his growth becomes stunted, Hungry Hearts plays out a bit like a reverse Rosemary's Baby. Costanzo, adapting a novel by Marco Franzoso, creates a disorienting point-of-view contrast. Our allegiance is, for the most part, with Jude, who can see through the lunacy that has taken root in his home, and only wants to protect his son. Over the course of the film, he is by no means without fault, but is a voice of reason, brought to life in that forceful-cum-vulnerable, no-bullshit attitude that Adam Driver has perfected nearly to a science.

But we experience much of the film's action in a way much closer to Mina's psychological perspective. We experience her paranoia and warped sense of reality. The world we see is the disorienting world she's so desperately trying to protect her son from - the world that is not to be trusted.

Costanzo and cinematographer Fabio Cianchetti go heavy on the wide-angle lenses and high-angle compositions - including one big sequence shot through an extreme fisheye lens that briefly makes it seem like Terry Gilliam has decided to direct a domestic drama.

The visuals are more objective for scenes in which Mina is not present; her presence, in all its agitating calm, is what makes the film's mood so captivatingly volatile. (And Rohrwacher is Driver's equal as their personalities go toe-to-toe - his unmistakable earnestness against her obstinate incomprehensibility.)

There's a primal kind of terror that invades Hungry Hearts from its opening frames. Before we know anything about the film's events, or its characters, there is the overriding feeling that there is something wrong. From that first scene as they uneasily try to survive that stench-filled bathroom, to their subtly unusual wedding, to their ultimate domestic conflict, Jude and Mina feel like they've emerged from alternate realities. Costanzo forces those realities to coexist, sardonically contorting their relationship almost as a challenge to see who will break first - and how. And to think, if only that bathroom door hadn't gotten stuck shut, this all could have been avoided.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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