If French movies are distinctly French, Italian distinctly Italian, why can’t Scandinavian movies be distinctly Scandinavian? Familiar mostly with only the superstars of Scandinavian cinema (von Trier, Bier, Vinterberg, etc) and a few outliers, I’m new to the game with Erik Poppe. While nowhere near as relentless as some of his Danish contemporaries, and far more optimistic (but who isn’t when it comes to von Trier?), Troubled Water displays much of the characteristics of a post-Dogme, Nordic-peninsula cinema.
Quick, quick, quick frame of reference: Loosely defined, the “Dogme-95 Movement” refers to a group of films that adhere to a “Vow of Chastity” as originally proposed by von Trier and Vinterberg. Both referencing and belittling Francois Truffaut’s manifesto “A Certain Tendency in French Cinema,” Dogme demanded things such as no on-screen credit for the director, use of only sourced music, on-location shooting, and the elimination of genre films. While the movement produced some noticeable films and influenced a variety of directors (Harmony Korine, anyone?) it was not long lasting as its progenitors themselves soon abandoned its ideals. Nonetheless, while its influence is still seen in the low-budget, video filmmaking of American and other independent cinemas, it’s perhaps mostly still felt in its original and neighboring countries.
Troubled Water dispenses of many Dogme rules and is far from a Dogme film (the score is a huge difference). Regardless, its handheld camera, lack of superficial action, and usage of sourced (diegetic) music point it in that direction in telling the story of revenge and redemption. Thomas has been released from prison after being convicted of murdering a child as a teenager. He takes a job as a church organist, strikes up a relationship with the female priest, Anna, who has a son, and attempts to return to society. First half of the film. The second half of the film, which is ostensibly a repeat of all of the action of the first half, is told from the point-of-view of Agnes, the mother of the murdered child, as she learns that Thomas has been released, that he is allowed around a child, etc.
Poppe brings his own style to the film, utilizing one particular visual motif throughout. The “Poppe shot” (why can’t he have his own?) has an actor very close in the foreground in a close-up or extreme close-up. This character, most frequently the main character Thomas, is out of focus yet still occupies a good 70% of the frame. The focus is instead set on the background, which are a variety of things – a statue of Mary in the church, Agnes rounding a corner afraid that her adopted child Selma has been kidnapped. This curious framing seems to indicate different things depending on who it is used upon. When the (lack of) focus is on Thomas, it is his surroundings that are the key. The fact that these surroundings are frequently the church point us in the redemptive direction, but there is also a sense of an environment larger than and alienating of him.
When the same technique is used on other characters it has a dual function. First, since it is initially used on Thomas, it recalls him, keeping him omni-present even when not in frame. Second, it reverses the original idea. Indeed, the best use of it is as I described briefly above. A minor character is in the foreground and out of focus. Agnes learns that Thomas came by her house to talk. She panics and, occupying the in-focus background, frantically searches for her own child. This reversal (major character – Agnes – as that in the background and in focus) places Agnes squarely within the environment. She has assimilated, Thomas has not.
In my last blog on The Beat That My Heart Skipped I talked about structural decisions in the script, focusing on the role of the director in framing certain shots, etc. Troubled Water is also told in a non-traditional format. Its non-linear structure, as mentioned before, splits time between the perspectives of Thomas and Agnes. I’ve often had a conversation with a friend about who is more important to a film, the writer or the director. All roads begin with the pen, so perhaps it is the writer. The answer is much more complex than that, but Troubled Water is a clear example of the writer taking the lead on structural decisions, as opposed to decisions that are clearly advanced upon and fleshed out in The Beat That My Heart Skipped.
The writer, Harald Rosenlow-Eeg, uses the split structure to prolong certain reveals. The end of the first half of the film is of the disappearance of Anna’s child, Jens, who is under the care of Thomas. The audience knows that Thomas has no role in the disappearance, but we are led to believe that Agnes, seeking revenge, may have a role. Instead of revealing this information right away, Rosenlow-Eeg rewinds and replays much of the earlier action from a different perspective. In addition to simply prolonging suspense, we are treated to a deeper understanding of the mental state of Agnes and her relationship with her husband. But the split structure also seems to be in place as a form of catharsis.
Early in the film Thomas approaches his organ loft to find his music scattered about. Given evidence to that point it is fairly easy for the audience to assume that Agnes is responsible for the act. The second half of the film follows Agnes, as she climbs to the organ loft, and the camera observes as she scatters the papers – we are now witness to the event of whose aftermath we saw in the first half. So – a question I often ask in here – why bother? It’s not a surprise. Writer and director aren’t fooling us. We learn little new information. Instead, the act of scattering the papers functions as a visual release of tension – the aforementioned catharsis. We are sympathetic towards both Thomas and Agnes (one of the primary functions of the split-structure). We don’t want to see violence, but we do need to see Agnes take out her frustrations. We can feel for her plight at this moment and the simple act of minute destruction helps us to get that same release, but not in a harmful manner.
If Troubled Water falters at all it is in its religious heavy handedness. The split structure allows us to see (forces us to see, in fact) some scenes more than once. One example is when a group of students, led by their teacher Agnes, go on a field trip to the same church where Thomas plays. This scene is significant in that it is the moment when Agnes first realizes that Thomas has been released, but also because it underlines what becomes a visual and aural theme of the film. Here it is represented aurally. The tour guide asks the children about baptism. “Has anyone here not been baptized?”
Baptism, rebirth, religion, doubt – all these themes are pervasive in here. By introducing us to the former theme via the children, Rosenlow-Eeg allows Poppe to visually emphasize and echo it in the murder sequence.
Thomas, as a younger man, kidnaps Agnes’ son in search of money in the pocket-book on his stroller. While Thomas is distracted the child climbs from the stroller and trips. Thomas, believing the child to be dead, wades into the water of a nearby stream (one returned to at a later crucial, and equally baptismally-referential scene) and lets the boy drift away. In effect, Thomas carries his “victim” into the water, mimicking a crude baptismal scene. It is made clear that Thomas has not been baptized, nor is he religious. So is this an ironic usage? Instead of baptism = new life, does it in fact = death? I think so.
There is all the more reason to think so in the ending. SPOILERS here: Agnes kidnaps Anna’s son. She, Thomas and the child end up at the same stream from the earlier murder. The child wades into the water. Thomas follows. Agnes follows. It’s certainly a tense scene. All three are ultimately saved and the stream’s baptismal powers now switch interpretations from the murder scene. Here baptism = life, literally. This is taken to its somewhat heavy-handed conclusion immediately thereafter. In the car, Thomas admits to Agnes that her son was still alive when he let him float away so many years ago. She responds to his confession by gently placing her hand on his cheek. Forgiveness for him. New life for both. Okay. I’m still with this.
But then we get the one major misstep in the film. Thomas returns with the child to Anna. Anna is frantic. She is also furious at Thomas for concealing his loaded past from her, and in effect furious at herself for leaving her child alone with a murderer. Remember, Anna is a priest. Earlier in the film Thomas asks her why evil is in the world – age-old question that doesn’t age. She responds that god created all and forgives all. Thomas replies that he doesn’t believe in god.
So, what does Thomas do when she won’t forgive him? He quotes their earlier conversation. He reminds her that there is evil in the world and that everyone deserves forgiveness. I struggled with this moment. I think it’s readable in two ways. 1) Anna is having a problem of faith and Thomas is reminding her of her way. 2) The one I subscribe to and seems to make more sense upon reflection – by asking forgiveness, Thomas is subscribing to a religious interpretation of forgiveness. Thomas truly wants this forgiveness because he loves Anna. Therefore, if this is forgiveness that he genuinely wants, and he goes about trying to get it in a religious manner, Thomas now believes in god. Too quick. Doesn’t make sense to me. Forgiveness, yes. Finding religion and god? I don’t see the narrative thread.
This slight flaw aside, Troubled Water is an excellent meditation on many complex themes. Exquisitely acted, beautifully written and uniquely directed. I’ll be checking out Poppe’s first film Hawaii, Oslo soon.