Torment

Directed by Luciana Caplan | Review by Prarthana Mitra

Torment is a powerful short film that draws its strength from the locus of human fear and frailty. Director Luciana Caplan chooses to paint the psyche of an old woman on the brink of insanity, with nothing but words, visions and shadows — and in doing so shines a harsh light on macrocosmic human experience.

Minimalist to the core, the film is deliberately set on a theatrical stage and driven by its protagonist’s soliloquy, who finds herself in a desolate corner of her house, run down by ghosts of the past like Miss Havisham’s mansion and paralyzed by tyrannies of the present like wars and other invisible forces. She feels deeply threatened by the notion of mortality and death but is quick to realize that it is dying alone that scares her the most. Weakened with age and wearied by experience, she finds herself unable to distinguish between nightmares, memories and reality. In the course of her unabated stream of consciousness, she lets slip vital clues from a past life, and how she longs for the bright sunny days of youth. By portraying the mental desiccation which comes with old age, Caplan manages to invoke universal pathos by constructing a nameless protagonist. In between her constant shift between different personas, she chastises herself, empathizes with herself and rambles on to her own reflection in the mirror.

In fact, the symbols, motifs and props used or referred to in the film, begs a psychoanalytic reading of Torment, especially with the recurrent images of the mirror and the mother. Her hysteria is clearly manifest in her feverish monologue, manic expressions, lapses in memory and nervous ticks and phobias— all captured with a visceral tour de force by actress Melinda DeKay. Twice she breaks the fourth wall, screaming at one point to the camera to stop looking at her, and at that moment she resembles the fearsome women in ancient classical plays. From her very first appearance on stage, where she cradles an imaginary baby dressed in a black mourning robe, DeKay reminds the audience of the Choric characters in ancient Greek plays, women keening the loss of their youth to time, and mourning the deaths of their children in battles.

In her battle with her many selves, DeKay poignantly traces a schizophrenic vacillation between memories and dreams. The wonderfully scripted visions are brought to life through sheer acting prowess, leaving a lot to the viewer’s imagination and interpretation. Besides the resonating delivery of Caplan’s nuanced and staccato dialogues, in the brief silences that fill the screen, DeKay’s face speaks a thousand words. What adds to the film’s richness is the way the character’s pain and paranoia are palpable throughout the 18 minutes, pronounced by the single source of light, ominously illuminating the solitary figure.

The absence of any other person or inanimate object in the frame makes it possible for cinematographer Sophano Van to focus on DeKay’s enchanting presence– her face replete with the wrinkles of time, her hands intuitive in their gesticulations, and her gaze distant looking through the windows of her soul into some unknown world. As her frenzied passions reach a breaking point, we are none the wiser about her past or her future, although we do have an inkling of what happened to her or what happens of her as the curtain falls. What we can surmise with certainty, however, is that she suffers from a deeply human condition—of being trapped in the present reality and unable to reconcile with it.

 

Prarthana-Mitra

Prarthana is presently in between odd jobs and obtaining her master’s degree in literature. She loves modern poetry and meditative cinema. Based out of Calcutta, Prarthana observes people, football, films and enjoys writing about all three. Of late, she relates to Frank Ocean’s music. Her writing experience consists of writing for various sites such as Try Cinema, The Indian Economist, Doing The Rondo, Saintbrush and various academic journals.