There is something about the idea of using cinema, a visual medium, to explore the tragedy and terror of sudden blindness that makes Norwegian Eskil Vogt’s directorial debut “Blind” an intriguing prospect even on paper (Vogt previously collaborated as a writer with Joachim Trier). But it’s where he, and extraordinary lead actor Ellen Dorrit Petersen take that premise, and how stylishly and wittily they do so, that makes the film which won the screenwriting prize in Sundance, one of the finds of our Berlin Film Festival. In fact it’s a shame it was pushed into a crowded Forum sidebar lineup, when it was so easily superior to the majority of this year’s lackluster Competition titles. Compelling, clever and surprisingly warm despite its cool palette, the film is also a worthy addition to the canon of recent Scandinavian cinema, a region whose filmmaking output seems only to grow in esteem and distinctiveness, year on year.
Ingrid (Petersen) has recently gone completely blind, but in her opening voiceover narration, over pictures of the streets and stores and restaurants of her life, tells us how hard she’s working in her mind to retain mental images, a process as involved as it is impossible to perfectly achieve: “no one can remember every detail of a building.” In the period since losing her sight, Ingrid has become reclusive, never leaving the apartment, one to which she and her husband Morten (Henrik Rafaelsen) moved after the event, so she has never seen the place in which she now spends all her time. In eerie early- moments, we get a glimpse of how frightening blindness could be, when Ingrid has the uncanny sense that Morten has only pretended to leave and is in fact sitting in the same room, silently watching her. But then we suddenly, jarringly cut to another story, still narrated by Ingrid, but focusing on Einar (Marius Kolbenstvedt, who engenders real empathy for a character who could just be a creep), a chronic masturbator and consumer of pornography whose intense loneliness leads him to start to spy on a pretty blonde neighbor. The neighbor is single mother Elin (Vera Vitali), whose strand is the third story Ingrid narrates.
From the start the film is artfully shot, by “Dogtooth” and “Keep the Lights On” DP Thimios Bakatakis to evoke a slightly dreamy, fuzzy impression, often with small, odd parts of the frame in focus while everything else falls away, recalling Ingrid’s speech about trying to concentrate on details to build a picture of the whole. And at first the shifts from story to story are a puzzle to us, but soon, via a series of clever transitions between the characters--a yawn, a TV show, a glass of wine--and some odd tics that feel almost like glitches, as when the sex of Elin’s child changes mid-scene, or a conversation happens in a café that is sometimes a bus, we realize that Einar and Elin are figments of Ingrid’s imagination. They are a story she is writing, while alone all day in her ivory tower. But soon this “Stranger than Fiction” premise becomes more complex, as Ingrid starts writing her husband Morten into the story, and as Elin stops being an autonomous characters and starts taking on more and more of a proxy role for Ingrid herself. So like anyone involved in the creative process Ingrid exerts a godlike power over the characters she creates, having them say and do odd, sometimes amusing, sometimes insightful things, but soon the indignities she visits upon them become less broadly mischievous and more meaningful as their correlation to herself and her own situation is increasingly underlined.
In fact the drama that evolves between the fictional Einar, Elin and Morten is Ingrid’s way of contending with the issues that are dogging her and her marriage since a genetic disease took her sight. And so while real-life Morten gets increasingly frustrated with her withdrawal from society, helplessly believing she’s sitting home all day doing nothing, Ingrid is actually actively working through her grief, her fear, her sense of the injustice of her situation. With wit and not a little bravado, perhaps almost unconsciously, Ingrid is using all the resources of her lively, intelligent interior life to help her stop being someone who has lost their sight and can only look to the past, and to start contemplating a future as a blind person. She is learning how to be blind.
Along the way there are well-observed moments of pathos and humor that point out some of the quandaries, indignities and tragedies of blindness that a sighted person might not think of: not being able to clean up a spill; having to rely on someone else to tell you how your party dress looks; having your privacy compromised by a spoken-aloud text message conversation on a bus; even the sad, small heartbreaking detail of having to ask a lover is he is smiling at your touch. The cumulative effect of these little insights is extremely moving, and stayed with us long after the film ended.
But really the arc of the story is one of reclamation; of a remarkable woman taking back her life and her sense of herself in the teeth of an affliction that could threaten to overwhelm her into despair. The imagined world she creates stops being a retreat from real life and starts to become her conduit back to it. “Do you really think I’d bring anyone else here?” admonishes fictional Morten gently in the restaurant they used to go to together, where previously Ingrid had set one of the imaginary instances of his infidelity. And no, we can’t, because as withdrawn and prickly as Ingrid has become, we have been privileged to spend time inside her head, and we’ve kind of fallen in love with her a bit — her self-criticism, her wisdom, and her wicked wit. This is a peculiarly beautiful film, with lingering sustain and the kind of hard-won optimism that feels truthful as well as hopeful. Stylish and engaging, and laying out a fine manifesto for the power of the imagination to bring us real-world catharsis, “Blind” is a magnificently clear-sighted film. [A-]