Director Damjan Kozole literally and metaphorically explores Slovenia’s dark side in the allusive thriller “Nightlife.” This engrossing examination of fear essentially poses the question of whether it is worse to be mauled by animals or by the media. When a high-profile criminal defense attorney is found naked on a public road, bleeding massively from multiple dog bites and with a large strap-on sex toy nearby, his bewildered wife must summon all her cunning to contain the potential scandal. Given that this is no whodunit — and the how and why are also unspecified — audiences who prefer catharsis with their narrative strands neatly tied may feel cheated, but further festival action is assured for this Karlovy Vary premiere.
Married for 20 years, Lea (Pia Zemljic), a professor, and Milan (Jernej Sugman), a lawyer, appear to be a typical bourgeois couple, with a modern, attractive apartment and a son (Emil Kozole) attending graduate school in England. Milan has just succeeded in having charges against an apparently guilty client dismissed by invoking procedural error. His colleague (Marko Mandic) compliments his achievement, but Milan wearily wonders if it makes him a winner or a loser. After dinner with his wife, he goes out again, apparently on business.
Meanwhile, in a Skype call, Lea tells her son that she worries about him using a bicycle to commute in London. Little does she suspect that she will soon have bigger concerns a lot closer to home. Kozole allows viewers to have certain privileged knowledge that Lea lacks by showing some young cyclists discover Milan’s body and call an ambulance. As they wait, unable to help Milan, a more nosy commuter stops, recognizes the attorney, and starts snapping photos with his cell phone.
Lea arrives at the hospital assuming that her husband has been in a car accident. In her maelstrom of worry, at first she barely registers that no one wants to give her any direct answers. Then, suddenly, it clicks. Looking at Lea’s face in extreme close-up, we can practically see the wheels spinning behind her eyes. She insists on seeing her husband, and when the nurse leaves the room, she quickly hides the sex toy in her purse.
The investigator (Koole regular Peter Musevski) assigned to the case insists on questioning Lea at headquarters, which ratchets up the tension. The excellent Zemljic maintains her composure even when she has to reach into her purse, past the rustling plastic of the bag containing the offending device, to answer her mobile phone. Although it is never specified why Lea is behaving in this way, if there is some family secret she wants to hide, or if, as she insists to the investigator, the attack is a set up to smear her husband, she tries everything in her power, both legal and illegal, to keep the salacious information about the crime from going public.
Kozole, who is best known for his dark drama “Slovenian Girl” (2009), about an immoral co-ed call girl, and the gritty “Spare Parts” (2003), about people trafficking, creates an atmosphere of anxiety so thick audiences can practically touch it. As Lea waits in the shadows at the hospital, police station, and at the louche location where her husband’s car has been found, it feels as if there is some lurking threat.
With her ebony hair, pale skin, and innocent air, Zemljic looks a bit like an older version of the actress who starred in “Slovenian Girl.” Without any backstory to make viewers identify with Lea, it’s a difficult role and she’s in practically every scene, but Zemljic manages to make the character recognizably human if not entirely sympathetic.
Atmospheric widescreen lensing by Miladin Colakovic (“Death of a Man in the Balkans”) and on-the-money cutting by veteran editors Jurij Moskon and Ivo Trajkov lead the production package, which alternates cool tones with the nauseating shades of public institutions such as hospitals and police stations.