Saturday, October 05, 2013

German Currents ’13: Layla Fourie

Lies and deceit hang heavy in the South African air.  That should be good for Layla Fourie’s career.  She is a freshly certified polygraph operator. Unfortunately, she also ensnares herself with a web of lies in Pia Marais’ Layla Fourie (trailer here), which screens as part of the Goethe Institut’s German Currents: Festival of German Film in Los Angeles.

Fourie is a single mother with limited resources, but she stands on the brink of a better life. Hired by a polygraph company, she is sent to a large provincial casino to screen their next batch of prospective employees. Tragically, while in transit, Fourie runs down a stranded motorist she mistakenly takes for a carjacker. It was a dark and stormy night, and Fourie initially tries to do the right thing. Eventually though, she just dumps the body and covers up her crime as best she can. Of course, there is a witness: her horrible brat of a son, Kane.

Duly proceeding with her work, Fourie starts polygraphing applicants, including Eugene Pienaar, one of the few white job seekers. He immediately resents her intrusive questions, but is also somewhat attracted to her.  These responses make Fourie profoundly uneasy around him. As Fourie reluctantly comes to know Pienaar, she realizes his missing deadbeat father was the man she crashed into. The more time she spends with Pienaar, the more her conscience torments her. To make matters worse, Kane turns out to be a natural born blackmailer.

The ethically compromised polygraph operator is a fresh and intriguing noir premise, but Marais and co-writer Horst Markgraf never fully capitalize on its potential. Frustratingly, the polygraph machines entirely disappear after the first act. Still, the relationship that uneasily develops between Fourie and Pienaar is sharply written and smartly played by Rayna Campbell and August Diehl, respectively.  They share some real screen chemistry, but also convey all the thorny collective history making them instinctively wary of each other.

LF really crackles when Campbell and Diehl share the screen.  Regrettably, there is also an awful lot of utterly dreadful Kane, who makes a compelling case for child abuse.  Frankly, his behavior never rings true.  After all, kids are usually highly attuned to their parents’ circumstances and prone to show solidarity.

Conversely, the lawless milieu of LF feels very true to life.  Ruthlessly naturalistic in her approach, Marais holds a mirror up to nature and finds its reflection bitter and two-faced. Now based in Germany, Marais split her childhood years between South Africa and Sweden. Clearly, she is not entirely sanguine about the prospects for her partial homeland’s social fiber. After all, nearly everyone in LF is morally suspect—the only question is to what extent.

LF vividly immerses viewers in its harsh reality.  Cinematographer André Chemetoff nicely frames the character’s intimate angst and the harsh beauty of their surrounding environment.  It might be a bit of a ringer at German Currents, but the work of Campbell and Diehl should still pull in viewers expecting something more like Young Goethe in Love. (It is also part of the trio of Match Factory films screening during the festival.) While not without flaws, Layla Fourie is consistently bracing.  Recommended for who prefer their cinema without any extraneous sentimentality, it screens this Sunday (10/6) at the Egyptian Theatre as part of this year’s German Currents.