Frauke Havemann’s Be Right Back, premiering at Slamdance, is a curious, odd film. It wears its deliberate elliptical style and mode of narration with great indulgence, to a degree, it starts to get annoying. There is a bunch of unnamed characters that cross paths in the film’s setting of a desolate resort deep in the woods, and what ensues thereafter comprises its central interests. We begin with shots of high trees in the forests, a woman wandering with her backpack, the camera frequently zoning in on natural crevices, logs of wood and dense routes of the forest that seems to give some uncertain refuge to the woman. She meets another woman who comes to gather wood daily in the mornings, teasing her into her circles of people living at the edges of the abandoned resort. She often slips into stories and recounts longingly memories of her grandfather, whose attachment to the forest and his town is talked about in considerable detail. The narrative winds off to parallel tracks of another woman playing scrabble by herself, an old man who keeps gazing out his window at the series of trees in the distance and observes only one tree he feels is out of place.
These tracks, running tangentially, coalesce as the wanderer in the forest finds her way within the close mesh of relationships of the other four characters. Dumb charades, affixed at regular intervals through the week, are a central thread in the film, which seem to reveal the complex fractious dynamics. Everyone tries to gauge the cues which in themselves are misaligned and deliberately false. This is a film constantly trying to stew in heavy, laden atmospherics. There are long drawn-out shots of trees, hollow gaunt tree stubs, insects crawling flood like over expanses of the mossy earth.
The film hops from one character to another. The woman plays scrabble for two, by herself, also imagining what the other player would act like and which movie he would engineer. This game gradually includes the forest wanderer, though she is never truly incorporated. The air of bereavement and loneliness endured for way too long in an unhealthy mix of emotional stasis and unarticulated lesions hovers tightly over the film. Frissons of desire also interrupt the mostly platonic equations in the group. As a man confesses to a woman his feelings which he says were encouraged by her demeanor and accounts, he is rebuffed and that unsettles the temporarily intimately hewn together unit. Havemann, working from a script by Peter Stamer, Matthias Wittekindt, and himself, conjures an atmosphere in the film that leans to the forbidden but sanitizes it with aestheticized expressions, and bizarre narrative detours which feel added to the narrative just for some mystery’s sake.
A character wrestles with the air as if to ward off his congested unresolved issues. The girl whispers to the wood logs, yet again seeking some kind of communion. However, all of it reeks of high artifice, stitched sorely into the film’s spirit. The film preens of that very familiar art-house trap of over coded gestures in practically everything which could have easily done with less superficial coating due to the desired intentions being as dull and obvious as ditchwater, varnished with passages into the supposed wondrous and strange, none of it credulous enough to warrant sustained attention. While the setup is intriguing enough to pull us in, the writing is not sharp enough to make the viewer stay the course. There are several missteps with making its characters repeat their designated shtick, not to much effect. Case in point: the scrabble game is just a painfully insipid materialization of the particular character’s repressed issues. The clutch of characters come off as too purposefully manicured and invented and then just flung into a tight-knit situation where they must bounce off each other, testing each other’s limits, eventually suffering spectacularly in their attempts to rivet any sort of genuine interest or curiosity regarding their exploits or thoughts that sprint haywire.
The way Havemann steers the trajectories or even the encounters among its characters is stilted and inorganic. The shot-taking also starts to quickly feel tedious and laborious, as either the camera circles characters dizzily as they yearn for reckonings, or slow incursions into the depths of the woods. The connections across the characters seem more and more staged and contrived as ‘Be Right Back’ proceeds, and it gets tough to emotionally buy into any of it, despite the coldness in the director’s eye far too self-evident. Ultimately, all of it lapses into a sort of navel-gazing exercise, that is not anchored in thought that can assuredly handle the various convergent strands into a captivating, disconcerting whole, which seems to be the heavily projected façade of the film.