The spirit of Dogma 95 is alive, well and refreshingly reinvented in “The Comedian,” the highly promising feature debut of Israeli-born, London-based shorts director Tom Shkolnik. Filmed after intensive improvisation but with no script, this slice-of-life drama raises the bar for creating convincing reality via perfs by trained actors, the modest downside being a less-than-wholly satisfying narrative shape. Further fest outings are guaranteed following the pic’s appearance in the London fest’s First Feature competish, with niche theatrical to follow from adventurous distribs.
By day, Ed (Edward Hogg) works at a call center selling women’s health insurance; by night, he tries his hand on what must surely be the lowest rung of London’s standup comedy circuit. A 32-year-old who has yet to find his place in the world, he shares an east London apartment with Eastern European-accented musician Elisa (Elisa Lasowski). Their relationship is ambiguous, but Ed nevertheless encourages her to pay attention to his puppyish co-worker Steven (Steven Robertson).
Providing the piece with some narrative spine is the dynamic that emerges between artist Nathan (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, TV’s “Misfits”) and Ed when they meet on a bus after one of Ed’s laugh-challenged comedy perfs. “Who told you that you were funny?” Nathan mischievously inquires before inviting him back to his place. The depiction of these characters — two men, one white and one black, both of whom just happen to be gay, and for whom sexuality is just one component of their identity — is likely to resonate with audiences of all persuasions.
Filmed with mostly available light at real locations according to a strict set of rules devised by purist Shkolnik (only one take of each scene was permitted, for example), “The Comedian” represents a significant achievement by a bare-bones crew, with particular credit due to lenser Benjamin Kracun and sound recordist Howard Peryer. But perhaps the biggest contribution comes courtesy of editor Pierre Haberer, who apparently spent 10 months culling footage from 90 hours of rushes, and finely chiseled his four-hour rough cut into the artfully affecting 80 minutes that finally emerged. He describes it in the press notes as “the first wildlife documentary about human relations.”
One highlight is a conversation about homosexuality that seems to develop organically among Ed, Nathan and fellow bus passengers after the men are overheard discussing their relationship. Another, which closes the film on a poignant note, is between Ed and a London minicab driver.
Hardly the first film to depict the condition of being a decade or so out of college and still flailing for direction in life, “The Comedian” represents the next logical step from the mumblecore films of Andrew Bujalski and friends, eschewing narrative contrivance for a purer depiction of character and event. The resulting, highly specific authenticity marks Shkolnik as a fresh and potent voice, although the remaining challenge for the filmmaker lies in adapting his unique method to create truly satisfying drama.