Australian director Cate Shortland’s films feature a kind of threatening beauty. Their surfaces are too immaculate, too exquisite, not to be masking messier, queasier ideas and impulses beneath: the reckless, harshly punished sexuality of a teenage girl in “Somersault,” or a youth’s dawning realization of her Nazi brainwashing in “Lore.” In “Berlin Syndrome,” Shortland’s equally, intensely elegant third feature, the ugly subversion of seductive exteriors is built into the film’s very narrative, as a heady, sexy holiday hook-up turns overnight into an abusive abduction — cuing a nightmarish game of sexual control and captivity, in which toxic masculinity calls the shots. Adapted from Melanie Joosten’s 2011 novel, this arresting, slightly over-extended conversation piece marks Shortland’s first foray into genre storytelling — though the film’s aloof tone and angular gender politics keep it in the art-house domain.
That said, with sales already having proven brisk — a U.S. distribution deal was secured with Vertical Entertainment prior to its Sundance debut, with Netflix gaining streaming rights — “Berlin Syndrome” promises to be its director’s most widely seen effort to date, hinting at her potential facility with more commercial crossover projects. Between more trickily opaque stretches of character development, Shortland nails a handful of straight-up, nerve-shredding tension sequences, teasing a version of the film that might have tilted into full-bore horror.
As it is, the backpacker-abroad scenario that unfolds here is as coldly frightening as any grislier “Saw”-style version of events. Wandering aimlessly and alone through Berlin, young photographer Clare (Teresa Palmer, rather boldly underplaying) seems content to let adventure come to her, so when handsome, chatty local teacher Andi (Max Riemelt) takes an interest, a brief, hot dalliance with him strikes her as just the right degree of recklessness. After some romantic comedy-style courting — ambling through public gardens, correcting his adorable English errors, mooning over Gustav Klimt paintings — their relationship takes a sensual step up. As in her previous films, Shortland conveys the sense of touch with quivering exactitude, as Germain McMicking’s camera lingers deliciously over entwined expanses of skin.
The film’s steamiest, most ravishingly lit love scene comes, however, with a brutal hangover: The next morning, Clare awakes alone in Andi’s apartment to find all doors and windows impenetrably bolted, and her cellphone stripped of its SIM card. When her captor returns, meanwhile, she finds his demeanor drastically changed, his affable gallantry giving way to violent, chilly mastery — though he appears psychologically torn between blandly playing house (“Do you like pesto?”) and more perversely exploiting her imprisonment. The glowingly shot physical intimacy stops here — Shortland and screenwriter Shaun Grant show thankfully little interest in sexing up this grim chamber drama from this point — but “Berlin Syndrome” still demonstrates an acute awareness of body language and purely physical power-play, whether through touching the flesh or breaking it.
What remains ambiguous to the end is to what extent the film’s so-called Berlin syndrome mirrors its Stockholm counterpart. Does Clare’s confinement stoke a sincere personal connection to Andi? Is she merely play-acting as required to survive? Or is she ultimately in two minds? The stars’ cool, constrained performances support a range of interpretations. Palmer plays Clare as something of a closed book from the outset, only receding further from the viewer as the physical and psychological strain of her plight takes its hollowing toll on her person — a courageously passive approach to a character who could be played, in a more conventional thriller, as a far pluckier victim. Andi is granted more of a backstory, including all manner of daddy and mommy issues, but Riemelt’s quietly clenched performance resists tragic sympathy as much as it does gaudily villainous cliché.
The extreme low-temperature simmer of their relationships does risk palling over the course of nearly two hours, particularly as Grant (in his first feature project since debuting with 2011’s stunning “The Snowtown Murders”) preserves perhaps one too many of the novel’s mini-climaxes before skipping over some key logical steps in the finale. Still, it’s impressive how much throbbing terror the film works up from such a spare setup — surviving even the near-ruinous circumstances of the film’s Sundance premiere screening, where the DCP froze 10 minutes before the end, allowing crucial heart-in-mouth momentum to dissipate before a long-delayed resumption.
Editor Jack Hutchings can take a bow for the film’s slinky, insidious rhythm, but the movie is technically pristine in every department, from Bryony Marks’ highly inventive, selective score to Melinda Doring’s carefully thought-out production design — the spatial dynamics and restrictions of which cruelly turn Clare’s professed passion for GDR architecture against her. McMicking’s camerawork, finally, is dazzling throughout, manipulating framing and focus to portray Clare’s boxy surroundings as a patchwork landscape of forbidden and permitted spaces, and seeking soul-relieving beauty wherever it can: As seen through Clare’s eyes, a dismal string of Christmas lights carries all the radiant promise of the outside world.