Isn’t ground breaking, but it doesn't conform to the conventions of European art-house cinema.
Lucile Desamory’s Abracadabra as a film seems to evade simple classification. To call it art house meets surrealist mystery thriller might overstate the latter, but it comes close. Try to imagine blending Robert Bresson’s austere dialogue and visually compelling camera work, a silent horror film’s visually driven, slow-burn tension, and a dash of the avant-garde. Another film that comes to mind is Victor Erice’s 1973 Spirit of the Beehive– haunting, beautiful, and ratcheting up the tension until the film’s final scene.
In terms of plot, the film is both circular and abstract– the narrative loops at least twice around before finding its way back to center, bringing us to the movie’s conclusion and climax. It starts off with our main character, a reporter by the name of Damien, who wins a game of Scrabble one night and is thus visited by a ghost. He ends up following it outside, down the street and towards the front of a large building. Visiting the buidling again the next morning, Damien meets it’s three female residents who seem to belong to something between a Christian commune and secret society, yet seem set on ignoring his presence. Getting permission to stay, Damien is drawn into the mysteries of the house, but soon finds himself fighting to escape. Bizarre? Yes. Cohesive? Sort of. Pretty to look at? You bet.
I can only speculate it’s the Brussels-based director’s background in visual art that helps her construct the images in her first feature film. Her usage of light and shadow is noteworthy, as they function to draw the viewer in and (at times) push the action forward– in the strange expansive building the film is predominantly set in, one is compelled into further rooms by light emanating from keyholes, drawn toward characters surrounded by halos of light in an otherwise unlit space. Shadows in corners move and shift, and one grows acutely aware (and afraid) of what lies just beyond the edge of the light. Indeed, I had a moment where I found myself consciously thankful for the invention of color photography– the film’s images were truly stunning, in particular the final scene featuring a “set” designed by artist Lucy McKenzie.
The film’s ambient sound track by Nicholas Bussman only heightens the tension, bringing a general sense of unease and discomfort to the piece. The film’s characters maintain an apparent detachment from the story progressing around them, a reminder of Bresson’s preference for that austere acting style using non-professional players. At the same time, all this detachment and ambience can lead the viewer to lose interest, and I don’t quite see what the occasional slow motion scenes really add to the film. Additionally, Abracadabra’s brief ‘interlude’ mid-way along, adapting a scene from Saki’s 1911 short story The Open Window, seemed somewhat incongruous with the rest of the film.
All this being said, while Abracadabra isn’t ground breaking, nor does it conform to the conventions of European art-house cinema, and challenge traditional notions of the ‘horror’ genre. There’s still a lot going for it, and the film remains a pleasure to watch.