“Every party must end, and left behind are the lonely people.” Sounding like a deleted lyric from “Eleanor Rigby,” that line hints at only half the melancholy in “Aloys.” In what capacity any other guests were ever present is the driving question, however, of this enticingly strange psychological mystery, in which a grief-stricken private investigator’s attempts to track down an alluring anonymous caller seemingly lead him into the recesses of his own mind. Sampling “The Conversation” and “Memento” via a wintry, surreal strain of Euro arthouse storytelling, this auspicious, eccentric debut for Swiss writer-director-editor Tobias Nölle might stretch some of its cleverest ideas past breaking point; it’s hard to shake the feeling that “Aloys” is a killer short film rattling about inside an inventively uneven feature. Still, Nölle’s sharp, shivery aesthetic — with its highly formalized framing and dreamy use of color — lends real distinction to a curiosity that has already found traction on the festival circuit.
In line with its detective protagonist’s natural bent toward deconstruction and compartmentalization, even the essential establishing facts of the film’s narrative require some assembly. Through a series of stark, melancholy images — an empty apartment, a running tap, a resting corpse — viewers can piece together the immediate personal history of the eponymous Aloys Adorn, played with mournful reserve by Austrian star Georg Friedrich. A middle-aged loner whose chief interaction with the outside world has hitherto come via a small-time gumshoe agency run in partnership with his father, he retreats, if anything, even further into himself when the old man (Karl Friedrich) finally passes on. In an apparent state of denial, he continues to run the practice as if his father were still alive; spending his days invisibly following and recording his surveillance targets, meanwhile, hardly does wonders for his social skills.
The stalker becomes the quarry, however, when a bag containing Aloys’ various surveillance tapes is stolen off a bus; shortly afterwards, he receives a call from a smooth-voiced woman (a wily, promising turn from screen debutante Tilde von Overbeck), later introduced as Vera, who threatens to send the tapes to their subjects. Having thus strung Aloys into compliance, she initiates him into the practice of “phone-walking” — a therapeutic technique she claims was invented by the Japanese for the chronically shy, by which participants have to mentally place themselves in the locations and situations described by the caller.
As a relationship between the two builds via this curious remote device, Nölle begins elegantly shuffling the protagonist’s layers of perception, delusion and imagination, making it increasingly hard to determine what in this game (down to the game itself) is real. Is Vera a guardian angel or a cruel prankster, and is she a figment of the protagonist’s imagination either way? The film’s first half deftly holds such questions aloft, but once Vera takes physical form — one that doesn’t necessarily overlap with Aloys’ now entrenched conception of her — some ambiguities dissipate while others begin to feel a tad overworked. The tension between Aloys’ fragile states of consciousness is touchingly enacted in Friedrich’s quietly nerve-raddled performance, but doesn’t entirely sustain 90 minutes of narrative rug-pulling.
“Aloys” is consistently enlivened, however, by its eerie visual ingenuity, with cinematographer Simon Guy Fässler’s sculpted lighting schemes and Su Erdt’s meticulously unspectacular production design — playing muddy neutrals against brash stabs of poster-paint color — combining at moments to evoke the uncanny, hyper-real quality of Gregory Crewdson’s photography. For Nölle, this construction of a quasi-fantastical aura from a drab urban setting bodes well for what he might achieve with bigger budgets and broader genre remits; as it is, this singular debut draws up quite an elaborate mindmap of its own.