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Simon Read [Celluloid 04.01.16] post apocalyptic drama

In Claire Carré's accomplished feature debut, we're presented a post-apocalyptic world in which the few remaining inhabitants struggle for survival amidst a mass epidemic of reoccurring amnesia. The entire population are only able to recall events which happen to them during a single day, completely forgetting who and where they are whenever they wake from sleep.

The film is structured as a series of interconnected vignettes, revisiting multiple characters over the course of several days, and providing a glimpse into their strange, unhappy lives, and how they manage to cope. It's a low-key little film, meditative and slow-burning, but containing moments of pathos, humour, tension and occasional violence, and like the best films of its kind, it lingers in the mind long after viewing.

We begin one morning with a young couple (played by Jason Ritter and Iva Gocheva) waking up in a crumbling, abandoned apartment block, and we watch as they attempt to piece things together. They both wear the same coloured cloth around their wrists, suggesting some significant connection between them. Are they just friends, or are they a couple? They might even be brother or sister. This presents a few complications, but regardless, they decide to press onwards.

After gifting one another names for the day, they leave in search of other survivors. We meet a lost child (Silvan Friedman) who drifts aimlessly between the care of well-meaning adults, most of whom provide some measure of protection or comfort, but all of whom are ultimately just as lost. One of these helpers is a particularly creepy women who has reverted to a childlike state herself. Clearly traumatized, she lingers in the nursery of her family home (or someone else's family home), surviving off of sugary cereal while obsessing over her doll collection. The child's journey provides a link between various characters, as he frequently loses interest in whatever guardian has taken him into their care, wandering on to the next situation, and bringing us along. Eventually he meets a man we assume to be a former teacher (Tucker Smallwood), living in a house in the forest. He's trying to work out the cause of the epidemic by reading books on neuroscience, but his own condition dictates that this research remains forever futile.

Meanwhile, hiding underground in a huge, futuristic bunker, we meet perhaps the only two people in the world unaffected by this plague - a father and his teenage daughter - who now attempt to lead lives which make the most of their ability to remember. The daughter, Miranda (Greta Fernández), is encouraged to study music and perform classical cello pieces in the bunker's vast, empty concert hall. Her father (Roberto Cots) spends his days wandering around a gallery space staring at beautiful paintings. Miranda is deeply unhappy and desperate to leave. Her father warns her that in doing so she will essentially cease to be her 'self' as her memory evaporates. He explains his reasoning: "So long as one person plays cello, or admires a painting, what it is to be human still exists." The bunker's computer system subjects them to daily tests to ensure that their memories are intact. They have been down there for nine years...

Perhaps the most curious character is a violent, mentally unstable drifter (played by Karl Glusman). Credited simply as 'Chaos', this young man seems to illustrate mankind's brutality and capacity for destruction - murdering, raping and looting his way through the landscape, before forgetting whatever feeble plans he's formed, and simply starting again the following morning. Indeed, all of the film's characters seem to represent elements of human emotion which are linked to memory. The couple from the beginning suggests love, the teacher knowledge, the child innocence, and so on.

This is not to say the film approaches its material in a preachy, didactic way; it's something which becomes apparent largely on reflection. One of the film's strengths is that it allows events to play out without ever telling us specifically how to feel. During one moment of intense, unpleasant violence, we're given the choice either to cheer, or to be horrified - and this choice is entirely our own.

Story and characters aside, Carré's direction is strong. The camera work is primarily handheld, lingering quietly during moments of straightforward drama, moving quickly when things speed up. The film's aesthetic is fairly typical of low-budget PA films - all gritty and grungy, but containing lots of impressive locations, utilizing pre-existing dilapidated buildings and rural landscapes to its advantage, decorating sets with props and warning signs to establish and build on this frightening little world. All of these touches add a dash of authenticity to proceedings, and it's hard to fault the film on its visual style.

The futuristic bunker also looks very cool and chic, and the special effects used to create the holographic interface of the computer are nicely designed and pretty realistic.

This sort of hyperlink cinema really depends on the strength of the performances, and I've often considered it a shame that there are so few awards given for 'Best Ensemble Cast'. In the case of Embers, the players all acquit themselves well, particularly those characters whose scenes take place in isolation from others. In portraying complete opposites, Karl Glusman as Chaos, and Tucker Smallwood as the Teacher both stand out as delivering quite exceptional performances, while largely playing their scenes solo. Additionally, young Silvan Friedman impresses as our guide, remaining detached throughout events, his character's stoicism established through an agreeably minimal acting style.

Lost memories are evident everywhere in this film. Carré's roving camera picks up on abandoned objects, books, photographs, toys and forgotten mementos, none of which mean anything to the film's inhabitants. The film is a curious blend of sadness and grit, as characters either come together and offer support, or attempt to tear one another apart in the game of survival. The question raised throughout is whether we exist as the sum total of our memories, or whether we change, moment to moment, constantly afforded the opportunity to become someone else - someone better. It's an age-old philosophical conundrum, and it's rather elegantly considered in Embers.

I can't recall another film in which the final scenes have managed to blend doomed hope and melancholy with quietly amusing irony in quite the same way as this one does. This is a film to watch and then ponder over, and of course, to remember.

Recommended Release: Code 46

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quietearth (6 years ago) Reply

Watching this reminded me why I love film.


projectcyclops (6 years ago) Reply

Right on.


ChrisR (6 years ago) Reply

lovely review, thanks so much!

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