Hungarian auteur Bence Fliegauf made a head-turning debut in 2003 with his microbudget portmanteau drama “Forest,” which strung together a series of intensely performed two-hander vignettes depicting relationships in various forms of crisis. As a collection of miniatures, it promised intriguing things from Fliegauf, once given a larger canvas to work with — a promise largely fulfilled by such variously ambitious, unusual works as his Eva Green-starring sci-fi oddity “Womb,” the shattering massacre study “Just the Wind” and the mournful, reality-blurring mood piece “Lily Lane.”
In returning to the formal and thematic terrain of “Forest” for a standalone spiritual sequel, however, the director has taken an odd step backwards. Intermittently impressive on a granular level, “Forest – I See You Everywhere” is another claustrophobic collage of human dysfunction, jumping between heady themes of grief, abuse and retribution — though it never exceeds the sum of its many parts, lacking its predecessor’s vital shock of the new.
For longtime followers of the director’s work, “Forest – I See You Everywhere” at least offers chilly echoes of what excited them about “Forest” 18 years ago. Its seven disconnected mini-dramas are all written and performed with aggressive conviction, riding on turbulent currents of amplified emotion — any one of them plays like a randomly sliced excerpt from a full-throttle, single-narrative feature. Anyone less familiar with Fliegauf’s career, however, is likely to be puzzled by a bleak, opaque set of jigsaw pieces that never quite fit together in the course of two leisurely hours. Despite a spot in this year’s main Berlinale competition — to which the director returns nine years after winning the Silver Bear for “Just the Wind” — it’s hard to see distributors racing to an indulgence as familiar as it is peculiar.
While Fliegauf’s last feature, the misty, dream-channeling “Lily Lane,” was his most overtly experimental, “Forest – I See You Everywhere” marks a brusque return to realism. The raw, rough-hewn vérité of John Cassavetes is a blatant influence here, the pace for each segment set by a handheld camera, darting in seasick fashion between two or three anguished figures. Angry torrents of talk are the order of the day, too, save for a cryptic pair of bookending scenes in which a young woman (Laura Podlovics) walks in on her grandfather in repose, unsure if he’s dead or merely resting his eyes. This bracketing aside, however, none of the other stories are recurring or interlinked: It’s left to viewers to tease out any thematic commonalities as they go.
The first of the film’s larger vignettes is by some measure its most powerful, watching a teenaged girl (Lilla Kizlinger, superb) as she relates a horrific anecdote of familial discord and negligence that culminated in the death of her mother; only once her tale of woe is complete do we learn it’s an address she intends to deliver to her her school, rehearsed before her seething, emotionally abusive father. By dropping us in the heated crux of a conflict before filling in context and backstory at its leisure, this tale sets a pattern for those that follow — though not all will get us quite so emotionally invested.
It’s notable that the film’s stronger segments all pivot on parent-child tensions. One sees an adult man at odds with his ailing, elderly father, while crossing key boundaries with his stepmother; another, in the film’s lone stab at mordant comedy, tracks an out-and-hand argument between an adolescent boy (Fliegauf’s own son Janos) and his fanatically religious mother (Eszter Balla) over his harmless taste for role-playing fantasy games, a hobby she sees as tantamount to nascent Satanism. Interest flags, however, when couple dynamics come to the fore: An extended heart-to-heart between spouses struggling to conceive is affecting but edges on maudlin, while one interminable, low-stakes squabble between a younger pair over simmering ex issues could really have been dropped altogether, with some benefit to the film’s over-extended running time.
Fliegauf and cinematographers Mátyás Gyuricza and Ákos Nyoszoli shoot largely at nighttime, in cramped, drably lit interiors that compound the stories’ collective sense of airless despair. There are scraps of overlapping psychic pain between the segments, nearly all of which are marked by conspicuously absent figures even when grief isn’t the topic of conversation. But these are vague throughlines, not quite sufficient to give the film a lingering poetic heft once the stray details of its small narratives fade from memory. This is one “Forest” we never do quite see for the trees.