Hope, Emily Dickinson told us, is the thing with feathers. Despair, according to Samanou Acheche Sahlstrøm’s savagely convincing, brilliantly performed “Until We Fall,” is a thing with fangs and fists.
Dropping us into the lives of Danish couple Adam (Dar Salim) and Louise (Lisa Carlehed) as they return to the place from where their son Lucas went missing some time before — a seaside town in the Canary Islands where they have a holiday apartment handed down by Louise’s grandparents — Sahlstrøm’s frighteningly mature, gripping second feature is an uncompromising portrait of the pitiless derangement of grief. How it slowly dislocates you from everyone around and most dramatically, from yourself, from the person you used to be, and the way you usually behaved. As Louise says snappishly when Adam remarks on some little change to her routine: “There is no ‘usually’ anymore.”
Insights like these punctuate Sahlstrøm’s economical, cleverly trilingual script. Louise and Adam, still acting out a fairly convincing simulacrum of a loving, physical relationship, speak Danish to one another, imperfect Spanish to casual acquaintances and waiters, and too-perfect, non-native English to everyone else. But the idea that there are levels of estrangement going on here, that unprecedented grief has fractured their old selves into several different personalities between which they code-switch depending on the moment, is not merely a factor of language. It cuts to the desperately sad heart of this hair-trigger sensitive yet deeply unsentimental film.
There has been a break-in in the apartment while they were away. And they have been receiving letters, from several sources, that hint that there is more to Lucas’ disappearance than the accidental drowning concluded in the local police report. With no body ever found, these messages, which the police chief (Francesc Garrido) suggests are most likely from opportunists partially motivated by a deep-seated dislike of tourists, are enough to keep an agonizing glimmer of hope alive.
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This is especially so for Adam, who despite the closing of the case, and the maintenance of a degree of stoic bravado around Louise, has clearly got off the grief train several stations before acceptance. He becomes certain the locals, especially surly teenage neighbor Emilio (Óscar Casas) and his friends, know more about Lucas than they are saying, leading to several confrontations. For his part Emilio has a crush of sorts on Louise, one which she pursues with perverse, dissociated, almost sociopathic selfishness.
Sahlstrøm summons an atmosphere of uncertainty and potential menace through clever filmmaking, giving simple scenes, such as when the couple babysits a child at the beach, a sense of hovering catastrophe. DP Brian Curt Petersen’s handheld photography is mostly unobtrusive but then some sudden shakiness, some unmoored, searching close-up will remind us visually how unstable the couple have become. The uneasy drones of Magnus Jarlbo’s score sometimes resolve themselves into melody, or segue into soundtrack cuts, but any sense of reassurance is snatched away by one of Theis Schmidt’s abrupt, angular edits that send us stumbling into the next scene. Each time this deliberately jarring technique is used it is the story of Adam and Louise’s loss in miniature: the cessation of music mid-beat flinging us into silence, absence.
There are some flourishes that don’t work quite so well: the occasional flashbacks to close-up clinches between the couple, in which it’s difficult to make out if the embrace is supportive or combative, are at best unnecessary and at worst confusing. But this is a minor distraction from a film that mostly trusts the astonishing Salim and Carlehed to negotiate its acute hairpin bends of psychology, in performances so intensely committed that you may feel like calling the actors up afterwards, just to check they’re okay. And this unwavering focus not on sorrow, but on their increasingly erratic and unpredictable behavior is how “Until We Fall” sets itself apart from other death-of-a-child narratives. This is a grief movie that, for once, does not aim to make us cry.
Instead, we understand them, even when they are acting in unforgivable ways. When Adam makes a venomous suggestion to a pregnant couple; when Louise plays innocent to Emilio’s mother; when their own interactions turn from tender to evisceratingly cruel in an instant: “Until We Fall” explores the brutality of grief, inflicted not just on its victims but by its victims too. Because when all the civilized codes — moral, legal, and social — by which you used to live your life have betrayed you and led to an unspeakable, unresolved loss, why would you feel bound to follow them any more?