Enigmatic from its title on down, Belgian actor-turned-helmer Harry Cleven’s second fiction feature (following 1992’s “Abracadabra”) positions style over substance to mostly gripping effect. Fable-like in its simplicity, though sometimes pretentiously so, “Why Get Married the Day the World Ends” shrouds elemental girl-chased-by-maniac thrills in thick B&W atmospherics and cloudy-at-best character motivations. While pic occasionally teeters on the edge of arty pulp, on a purely visceral level it works — these terse 71 minutes are as harrowing as they are mysterious. Solid fest item could attract offshore interest from enterprising arthouse distribbers.
Establishing a nightmarish, morbid atmosphere right away, Cleven opens with an overhead shot of Juliette (Elina Lowensohn) laying blinklessly on the pavement amid discarded long-stem roses. Pic then backtracks to show how she got there, having run headlong into traffic to escape apparent longtime stalker Guido (Pascal Greggory). Initial appearances to the contrary, she’s not dead or comatose, just in shock.
Guido temporarily retreats as frazzled ambulance driver Gaspard (Jean-Henri Compere) drives the young woman off to the hospital. Once alert, however, she panics again, insisting her tormentor will soon find her — as indeed he does, screaming through the sickroom door as Gaspard holds him at bay.
Sympathetic and already half-smitten, Gaspard commandeers the ambulance to drive Juliette home, unaware that Guido still shadows them both. After another narrow escape, protags flee to the countryside. Couple enjoys a night’s romantic idyll before single-minded psychopath Guido turns up yet again, triggering hectic final series of chases and violent confrontations.
Lenser C.L. Zvonock’s imaginative B&W imagery, alternately formal and frenzied, does much to create a nightmare-cum-fairy tale mood primal enough to require no explicit psychological explanations. (Late disclosure of long-ago child abuse comes off as banal and unnecessary.)
At moments pic does grow too fussily mannered, its mythic pretensions often radiating from the glam waif-victim halo around ethereal Juliette (though Lowensohn does as well by her role as possible). Fleeting directorial excess aside, however, “Why Get Married” admirably balances expressionistic dislocation, mordant humor and the no-exit intensity of more conventional thriller models such as “The Hitcher” and “Wait Until Dark.”
Greggory limns an alarmingly vivid force of irrational mayhem, while Compere’s somewhat sad-sack hero offers vulnerable, all-too-human contrast.
Digitally vid-projected at San Jose Fest, feature is reportedly available in 35mm; it will look better in that format, as well as on the small screen.