From Roberto Rossellini’s “Voyage to Italy” to Maren Ade’s “Everyone Else” to Angelina Jolie’s “By the Sea,” there exists a rich and lacerating subgenre of marital drama in which beautiful couples turn ugly on vacation. But rarely have two marrieds sabotaged their own R&R time quite as comprehensively as the chilly protagonists of “Pretenders,” a lithe little psychological puzzler in which lives are stolen, swapped and quite possibly ruined in the space of one ostensibly tranquil weekend. Reminiscent in premise of the Raymond Carver story “Neighbors,” only expanded to the cruellest possible conclusion, this tart, poised debut for Estonian director Vallo Toomla is probably too dispassionate to woo major international distributors, but following its San Sebastian premiere, further festival programmers should extend “Pretenders’” travel plans.
There is always something disquieting — and, at the same time, voyeuristically enticing — about staying in someone else’s abode without them present, permitting your perusal of their personal possessions, décor decisions and prescription medicines alike. Carver’s story understood that queasy intrigue, and in the age of AirBnb, many are leaving themselves more vulnerable than ever to the unheard, unfettered judgment of others. In “Passengers,” however, the gawking is all aspirational. Borrowing the secluded summer house of wealthy friends — a pristine modernist display case of concrete and glass — allows almost-yuppies Anna (Mirtel Pohla) and Juhan (Priit Võigemast) to try on the class privileges they believe they deserve — sometimes literally so, as Anna casually dips into the lady of the house’s impeccable wardrobe.
The illusion of perfection doesn’t go very deep, however, even over the space of one weekend: On the first day of the vacation, journalist Juhan learns that he’s been laid off, a misfortune to which Anna — still processing a recent abortion — seems unsympathetic. Something is amiss about this otherwise handsome marriage, and cracks turn to crevices following a chance encounter with hippier, happier campers Triin (Mari Abel) and Erik (Meelis Rämmeld) on the beach; after initially inviting them back to the house for some first-aid equipment, Anna assumes the role of hostess in her temporary home, insisting — to her husband’s clear consternation — that the strangers stay over.
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What ensues is both an unusually inverted home-invasion thriller — one where the call is very coming from inside the house, as it were — and a very black comedy of sometimes inscrutable manners. As this tense quartet of not-quite-friends test each other’s generosity and politesse in increasingly perverse ways, the very fine class differences between them are exaggerated and mocked in what becomes, for Anna in particular, an insidious role-play exercise. “They clearly don’t have the same problems as us,” Triin whispers to Peter at one point; viewers will be inclined to disagree. Livia Ulman and Andris Feldmanis’s spare, tightly wound script maintains an elegant ambiguity on matters of agency and compliance; exactly who’s driving this toxic charade somehow becomes less clear with each passing scene. At one level a brittle satire of social one-upmanship, “Pretenders” also plays more intimately as a kind of bifurcated allegory for communication breakdown in the modern marriage.
Toomla’s ensemble navigates the script’s tricky balance of heightened and gut-level registers with care. There may be no clear hero to root for, exactly, in this unseasonally frosty summer tale, but Võigemast is particularly good as the husband simultaneously alienated and seduced by his wife’s newly arrived alter ego.
The filmmaking, meanwhile, matches the domestic atmosphere in this progressively nightmarish dream house: It’s all brisk froideur in d.p. Erik Põllumaa’s reserved, precise camera placement and the sharp, efficient cutting of editor Danielius Kokanauskis (best known for his more stately work with Ukrainian auteur Sergei Loznitsa). Particular credit is due to production designer Eva-Maria Gramakovski, who has made the house a minimalist collage of a thousand magazine spreads — seemingly devoid of personality, it nonetheless eerily dictates the temperament of those inside it. Costume designer Kristiina Ago is allowed a little more flash and color, sometimes to deliberately awkward effect: Who wears a sequinned shift dress to the beach, after all, but someone trying to live two lives at once?