starring Artemis Shaw, Prashanth Kamalakanthan
written and directed by Artemis Shaw & Prashanth Kamalakanthan
by Walter Chaw Prasanth Kamalakanthan and Artemis Shaw's New Strains is perhaps the definitive film about the COVID shutdown, addressing it both straight-on and metaphorically in adopting the central conceit of Michael Tolkin's dystopian novel NK3, in which a world-ending virus has as its primary symptom the infantilization of the infected. "New Strains" refers to both viral evolution and the manifold tensions introduced into the new romantic relationship of vacationing couple Kallia (Shaw) and Ram (Kamalakanthan), who land in the Big Apple right when the world shuts down. Trapped in a well-appointed, centrally-located flat, they bicker, watch television, have spiritless sex, and disagree over how seriously to take the risks of infection. Kallia, giving off some Lena Dunham vibes, is loose about masking and decontaminating when entering the living space. Ram, notably more uptight, freaks out a time or two in response to her laxness. It doesn't help that she deals with strife through giggling and taunting. Indeed, for all of Ram's irritating quirks--his fastidiousness and jealousy--I instantly despised Kallia for her schoolyard cruelty.
New Strains doesn't only make you take sides between the sometimes ugly coping mechanisms of Kallia and Ram--it also reopens barely-healed wounds you might still be nursing from disagreements concerning the pandemic. When should we be masking? Should we bother washing the groceries? How do we confront those who would place our loved ones in danger? How do we navigate a universe where it's all too clear how few people can be bothered to care for another human being? As the central couple is bombarded with bad news and the revelation that infection could lead to madness and imbecility, Ram responds by polishing the fruit at the bottom of the proverbial bowl and Kallia by leaving the apartment for a bagel she crams into her mouth, smearing her face with cream cheese, before engaging in a lengthy, flirtatious conversation on a park bench with an ex-boyfriend who happens to be passing by. I think it's brilliant how it's unclear whether Kallia was ever different from this or if she's actually been infected by the mind-destroying bug since before the start. I kept looking for symptoms of decline, but really, until the end, it's hard to tell if she's ill or simply not my kind of person.
I wonder if in fact a mind-destroying illness doesn't act just like this. Like how the dementia I began to note in my father-in-law didn't announce itself à la the Kool-Aid Guy busting through a mental dam, but only gradually, giving him time to build compensatory behaviours to mask the level of damage. When Ram discovers an old picture of his rival still on the mantel of their borrowed flat, is his churlishness amplified by the frustration of their situation, or by disease? Does it matter? At their lowest, Ram and Kallia huddle beneath a dining table and make music together banging on pots and glasses, singing and humming. It reminded me of the ritualistic, conditioned dance taught to prisoners of a malign intelligence in William Sleator's classic novel of captivity and human engineering, House of Stairs. New Strains suggests that we responded to extraordinary strife by sacrificing a lot of what held us, however tenuously, each to each: time in polite proximity with others, belief that there are good people not driven solely by self-interest, hope that the good guys still outnumber the bad. I didn't think everything was so fragile. I didn't know it was a house of cards or that we built it on a faultline.