By Kyle Burton | Criticwire February 20, 2014 at 3:56PM
Eskil Vogt's screenplay for Blind -- which Sundance awarded in the World Cinema Dramatic category and continued to wow viewers in Berlin -- trains a surreal concept on the palpable alienation of a middle-aged woman recently blinded by a genetic disease. You can imagine the conversation: "She's blind. She refuses to leave the apartment. We're telling it from her point of view. What the hell are we going to show onscreen?" The answer: A dreamed-up world so steeped in realism that its greatest trick is making us suspect trickery.
Near the middle of Vogt's directorial debut -- he co-wrote Joachim Trier's Oslo, August 31 -- Ingrid feels the model of a building her husband built. He describes the structure as she uses her fingers like sonar. She cannot envision it. Eventually, blindness numbs all pathways for images. But this is a motion picture, told without interruption from her point of view. Visualization betrays her, and so it will us.
At times we may wonder if Blind isn't a sort of "Stranger than Fiction," Ingrid half-empowered with omniscience, her anxieties dramatized but perhaps at least partially true. We have that suspicion, though, because of the unlikelihood that a filmmaker would dedicate the overwhelming majority of his film's screen time to scenes that exist only in the protagonist's head. Even when Blind seems to be that very thing, the temptation to await Identity or Shutter Island twistiness is strong. A film constructed as Blind is needs multiple viewings -- not for its puzzle, but because it acknowledges and then abandons our expectations.
The first man Vogt shows us is Einar, one of Ingrid's imagined personas. He shuffles, lonely and wanting, throughout Oslo. He watches desensitizing amounts of porn. "Eventually… he needed something mundane in the girls he masturbated to," Ingrid characterizes him in voiceover. She must know him. We return to Ingrid. Her husband comes home, but we see only his torso as he walks past her and we don't yet know his name. She moves to the window. Remember: she cannot see. We cut back to Einar. He hangs his coat, then lotions his neck, gazing out of his apartment at a woman, Elin, who we first see with a son but then a daughter, in the apartment across the street, smoothing lotion on her shoulders.
What is the script setting up? The editing sidesteps linking together Einar and the partially seen husband. So, if not that then what? We should recognize Einar and Elin as fantasies of Ingrid. Ingrid's interior monologue of them sounds like prose, and that turns out to be the case, she spending those many empty hours writing. We've seen plenty of times before a character's fantasy world emitted onto the screen. A film like Blind could settle on that foundation. Then: Einar and Morten run into each other at a cafe.
Always keep faith, though, in the film itself and not our own familiarity with genre mechanics. Vogt employs techniques throughout Blind to distinguish the fiction: voice over characterizations, intercuts of Ingrid laughing at some misfortune of Einar or Elin's, carrying out a possible reality longer than it could occur -- layers of reality and fantasy still overlapping, all of it executed with equal measure. The technical cues never drift away from the film's overall naturalism. Fantasy and reality intermingle indiscriminately.
The heart of the film is in this third dimension. In the baseline reality of this film, Ingrid does only two things: She chooses not to do one thing, and afterward she chooses to do another. These come late in Blind. Mostly, she develops by how she treats her made-up characters. They are analogues some of the time, punching bags during others. They have their lives, but their lives come from shames or yearnings of Ingrid's. Ingrid's life slips into theirs (Morten being old friends with Einar and having an affair with Elin), theirs into hers (she smells Morten's gym bag after she spent the day fantasizing about him skipping the gym). Early in the film, Ingrid thinks, "It's not important what's real, as long as I can visualize it clearly." Blind spends the rest of its running time building this other reality, the one in which a newly blind woman's only bridge between her current world and the one she used to inhabit is her imagination.
In this way, Vogt instills a remarkable identity in the film. The script neither fortifies a sanctuary of personal fiction for Ingrid, nor does it flog the audience with her disorientation. That's not to say Blind isn't disorienting. It is, and necessarily so. But a careful viewer will catch on to clues and patterns. Rather, Vogt constructs a reality devoid of any resistance between reality and fiction, opting instead for interior truth-making that manifests onscreen as fictional action whose veracity, for Ingrid, can never be evinced. "I know I've let myself go," Ingrid's voice over says in a moment of vulnerability. She's done nothing of the sort. She's assumes something of the unknowable external world because of an internal insecurity. What's worse: a mirror or an imagination? What's truer: our world or hers?