Film Review: ‘Until We Fall’

Grief drives a Danish couple on vacation to ever more extreme antisocial behavior in this superbly acted, deeply provocative drama.

Samanou Acheche Sahlstrøm
Dar Salim, Lisa Carlehed, Francesc Garrido, Óscar Casas, Yoima Valdés, Yaiza Guimaré, Martin Greis, Pernille Andersen, Mario de la Rosa, Mirka Jimenez, Samuel Weiss, Katja Danowski. (Danish, English, Spanish dialogue)

1 hour 49 minutes

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.

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?

Film Review: 'Until We Fall'

Reviewed at Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival (competing), Nov. 28, 2018. Running time: 109 MIN. (Original Title: "Til vi Falder")

Production: (Denmark-Sweden) A Meta Films production with the support of the Danish Film Institute, in collaboration with Orange Valley Canarias. (Int'l Sales: Meta Film, Copenhagen.) Producers: Jakob Kirstein Høgel, Sara Namer. Executive Producers: Louise Foldager Sørensen, Nina Bisgaard.

Crew: Director, screenplay: Samanou Acheche Sahlstrøm. Camera (Color, widescreen): Brian Curt Petersen. Editor: Theis Schmidt. Music: Magnus Jarlbo.

With: Dar Salim, Lisa Carlehed, Francesc Garrido, Óscar Casas, Yoima Valdés, Yaiza Guimaré, Martin Greis, Pernille Andersen, Mario de la Rosa, Mirka Jimenez, Samuel Weiss, Katja Danowski. (Danish, English, Spanish dialogue)

More Film

  • Someone Great

    Film Review: ‘Someone Great’

    There simply aren’t enough modern romantic comedies that cherish the merits of female friendship in the aftermath of a romantic breakup. There are even fewer that feel like a personal, lived-in experience. Female-driven raunchcoms (like “Girls Trip”) have explored this territory to a certain extent, though many stop short of delivering genuine poignancy (like “Rough [...]

  • Actresses take part in the #metoo

    Cannes Grows More Inclusive With Stronger Lineup of Female Filmmakers

    In 1946, the inaugural year of the Cannes Film Festival, Barbara Virginia’s surrealist film, “Tres dias sem Deus” debuted in competition. Over the subsequent seven decades, as it has grown in stature to become one of the world’s premier film gatherings, Cannes hasn’t matched that early promise in highlighting female artists. Finally, the powers that [...]

  • Rocketman

    Cannes: 2019 Lineup Includes 'Rocketman' and Films by 13 Rising Women

    The 72nd Cannes Film Festival announced its lineup, boosting the number of female filmmakers in official selection to 13, four of whom will compete for the Palme d’Or. The number of Americans is also up, including Terrence Malick (with his wartime, German-language drama “A Hidden Life”), Ira Sachs (who unveils Portugal-set Isabelle Huppert starrer “Frankie”), [...]

  • Cannes Unveils 2019 Official Selection (Watch

    Watch Cannes Lineup Announcement (Updating Live)

    The 72nd Cannes Film Festival is announcing the films chosen for “official selection” — including those competing for the event’s coveted Palme d’Or prize — in a press conference Thursday starting at 11 a.m. in Paris. The livestream of the press conference is available here. (Please note that the broadcast seldom starts on time.) Last [...]

  • Godzilla

    'Godzilla' Owner Toho Poised for Expansion in Hollywood

    Toho, the largest movie group in Japan, is expanding a subsidiary in the U.S. with a view to working more with Hollywood. The company said that its existing Toho International Inc. subsidiary has been injected with $14 million (JPY15.4 billion), through a share issue subscribed to by the parent company. The subsidiary has existed since [...]

  • View Conference Opens Registration for 2019

    2019 View Conference Opens Registration, Calls for Short Film Competition Entries

    Registration is now open for the 2019 edition of the View Conference in Turin, Italy. No speakers have been announced yet, but past conferences have featured some of the world’s top creative talents in visual effects, animation, gaming, virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality. Last year’s edition featured composer Hans Zimmer, Paramount Animation topper [...]

  • Former professional boxer Bradley Welsh in

    Bradley Welsh, 'T2 Trainspotting' Actor, Shot Dead in Edinburgh

    Bradley Welsh, an actor in “T2 Trainspotting” and a former boxer, died after being shot in Edinburgh, Scotland, on Wednesday. He was 42. The Edinburgh Police Division reported an incident on Chester Street in Edinburgh’s West End neighborhood around 8 p.m. local time. They found Welsh seriously injured in the street and said he died [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content