SWEET, SWEET LONELY GIRL
starring Quinn Shephard, Susan Kellermann, Erin Wilhelmi, Frances Eve
written and directed by A.D. Calvo
A DARK SONG
starring Catherine Walker, Steve Oram, Mark Huberman, Susan Loughnane
written and directed by Liam Gavin
by Walter Chaw Self-consciously a throwback to supernatural softcore lesbian exploitation as indicated by the films of Jean Rollin and, specifically, James Kenelm Clarke's The House on Straw Hill (with bits of Pawel Pawlikowski's My Summer of Love in there), A.D Calvo's Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl has a pretty good feel for time and place, but not much more than that. It's the definition of slight. Adele (Erin Wilhelmi) is a bit of an outcast. Gangly and awkward, she's sent away to be the helper for her mysterious shut-in of an aunt, Dora (Susan Kellermann), at Dora's decaying Victorian manse. One day Adele sees a beautiful girl at the market, Beth (Quinn Shephard), strikes up a friendship with her that evolves into a love affair of sorts, and discovers herself at the same pace that everything begins to fall apart with Dora. It's a recognizable tale of feminine agency told better, directly and indirectly, as recently as Osgood Perkins's February (now The Blackcoat's Daughter) and Robert Eggers's The Witch. Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl begs comparisons because it begs them explicitly. Its soundtrack is AM Gold featuring choice cuts from Rod Stewart and Crystal Gayle as well as a few nice slices from Starbuck, and the film itself is a mix-tape in every way.
Adele's arc is understated. Calvo makes the intriguing decision to mark her growth with her interest in material things: a ring, a dress she can't afford. He pays it off with her literal deflowering, presented as ugly and abortive. There's a general disapproval throughout of heterosexual intercourse. Acquisition seems tied to it in Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl, although there's not enough substance here to make this more than a hint of a suggestion of an idea. Adele is meanwhile so pale she's almost like an after-image. Beth, set against her, is the Liv Ullmann to her Bibi Andersson, the Suzanne Pleshette to her Tippi Hedren. If theirs is an effective dynamic, it's only because it's such a proven trope in these things. Even Beth's turn from genial whore to shrivelled crone--she's been "mother" already, as evidenced by dialogue referring to an abortion--is film-school boilerplate. It would be more grating but that this is essentially a feature-length proof of concept. It's obvious that Calvo's read a few books and seen a few films, but marrying obvious to familiar doesn't speak well of the result. The Duke of Burgundy found a direction to go with this stuff; in a different way, so did Ti West's House of the Devil. All Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl does is paddle around in the atmosphere it creates.
Better is Liam Gavin's directorial debut A Dark Song, which finds another closed-room conceit in two lost souls, Victoria (Catherine Walker) and Joseph (Steve Oram), who make a Clive Barker/W.W. Jacobs pact to summon some dark arts in order to ask for one important thing. Victoria, it seems, has lost a child at some point in the past, abducted from daycare and murdered. She agrees to a six-month ordeal involving fasting, drawing things in chalk on the floor, drinking blood before it congeals, and having Chinese script painted on her with Joseph as her guide. There's a scene where Joseph has her dress in a T-shirt and jeans and then enact a popular porn conceit that ends with recrimination and confession ("I'm only a man"); and another where a scuffle ends in an unfortunate piercing that Joseph recognizes as his harvest to reap. The film is about causality--like those Barker stories of unravelling knots and Pandora's boxes, or Jacobs's about being careful what you wish for. The questions raised by A Dark Song have to do with the consequences of desire. Victoria has a conversation one night with the voice of her dead son and apologizes that she wasn't there to save him. She apologizes again that, no, she won't be opening the door for him, because she knows it isn't really him. It plays a little like a Val Lewton in those moments.
In other moments, the film depends heavily on Walker and Oram's ability to maintain interest. They work out a Death and the Maiden, sado-masochistic transference: he makes demands, she recriminates the next morning. It doesn't take much stretching to come to the conclusion that Gavin might be playing with matrimonial satire here, gender politicking in the grieving mother and the cold "father." The picture's not unlike Antichrist in that way, though it lacks the forward momentum to push into the surreal and the purely symbolic as Lars von Trier does. Mostly, it's content to reiterate the rhythms of their relationship in a tactic mirroring the boredom and repetition of their oubliette, I think, but this tests our patience more than anything else. There's a payoff, and it's fine (it lands somewhere between Jacob's Ladder and Martyrs), but the pleasures of the piece are in Gavin's fine handle on the heaviness of grief and a general mood of anticipation. At the end of the day, it's a lot of build for a fairly unexceptional reveal. The unkind could pull the string of A Dark Song's intentions and unravel its pretensions justlikethat. Yet Gavin shows real spark at times, like the rain of blossoms during one day's ablutions; or in those two conversations held, The Leopard Man-like, through closed doors between a mother and her child; or in a brief bit of torture that leads to what's in the attic. A Dark Song has a lot of first-film problems, in other words, but there's enough there to build anticipation for Gavin's sophomore feature.