The course of true love is awfully sinister in “Malady,” an intense, impressionistic portrait of two lonely English souls who find one another — though there’s more desperation than joy in their union, and halfway through the introduction of a parental figure drags this already discomfiting tale toward Grand Guignol territory. Short on explication, arguably more cryptic than necessary, this is nonetheless an arresting narrative-feature debut for British helmer Jack James (“A Thousand Faces”). It will prove a challenge in commercial terms, but should stir interest while raising the principal collaborators’ profiles in fest travel and new-director showcases.
Initially scrambling its chronology to a disorienting degree, the pic nonetheless makes its starting point clear: Keeping vigil at her mother’s deathbed, Holly (Roxy Bugler) is urged to go out and find love, having presumably avoided all such prospects during the long illness. She takes that advice with guileless literalism, spying bearded, pallid Matthew (Kemal Yildirim, also a U.K. indie writer-director) through a restaurant window. Almost without exchanging words, these strangers are compulsively drawn into a “one-night stand” that lasts days, its bottomless psychosexual hunger conveyed in blunt physical terms.
When they finally part because Holly has other commitments, she has a tense meeting with an apparent sibling (Gary Cross). He’s strangely hostile and suspicious toward news of her new “boyfriend,” despite their own estrangement until now. “I just want us to be a family,” he says. But she wants no part of him — Matthew is already her entire world, with no room for broken ties from the past.
That rule does not extend to Matthew’s past, however, at least in Holly’s mind. When he repeatedly refuses to answer his phone, she impulsively answers for him, then after a short conversation (unheard by us) reports that his mother is dying and “she needs you.” Matthew is extremely reluctant to go. We soon learn why: Doleful, skeletal Lorelei (Jill Connick) is a terror, who wastes little time before horrifying her son’s mate with tales of drowning pets who “got pregnant without God’s consent.” It’s a short leap from that to her telling Holly: “You’re a creator of evil and a child of Satan.”
It’s unclear whether this woman is a religious fanatic, simply insane, or both. What is clear is that she’s a hurricane of psychological damage that broke Matthew long ago; the last thing he needed was a fresh onslaught. Yet Holly persists in attempting to mediate between them, blinded by her own need for family. This can’t end well, and it doesn’t, leading to a couple of murky, violently transgressive acts.
Fearsomely committed performances by the principals are heightened further by James’ lensing, which is intimate to the brink of distortion — favoring extreme closeups and fields of woozily uneven focus. His astute editing likewise adds considerably to a dislocative, uneasy atmosphere, as does Bradley Oliver-White’s score, whose elements of drone, dissonance and musique concrete sometimes blend with the few cannily selected various-artist tracks.
This aesthetic package’s psychological dimensions are at once vivid and mysterious — an impact that may not fully compensate for those viewers ultimately frustrated by the pic’s stubborn resistance to greater character development/backgrounding, let alone the odd moments when seemingly key dialogue is almost unintelligible. For others, though, the unique clammy force of “Malady’s” claustrophobic bad vibes will outweigh the nagging questions its narrative leaves behind.