Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Panorama Europe ’16: The Cleaner

It is a dirty job, but some underpaid ex-con has to do it. Tomáš would be that lucky prole. He cleans up after crime scenes, suicides, natural deaths, and the occasional deceased pet. That was how he first came to the apartment of the shopgirl he pined for, but obsession kept him coming back—secretly. Despite the obvious voyeurism, viewers should refrain from making the usual assumptions during Peter Bebjak’s The Cleaner (trailer here), which screens as part of Panorama Europe 2016.

It is solitary work, frequently requiring a face mask, but it suits Tomáš as well as it would suit anyone. He does not have much human contact, aside from his awkward sessions with a state-mandated head-shrinker. However, we quickly deduce he is the product of an unnurturing environment. In fact, his mother is currently serving a prison sentence for a crime in the Burning Bed tradition. He is just not equipped to put the moves on Kristína, no matter how many candles he buys from her store. However, he can stare at her for hours from her closet.

Frankly, Kristína’s exploitative deadbeat brother is more trouble for her than her peeping stalker, especially when he pimps her out to abusive perverts to cover his gambling debts. It is more than Tomáš expected to see. In fact, things get so desperate, he will be forced to intervene.

Cleaner is an unsettling film in many ways, but it is much more complicated than an invasion-of-privacy thriller, like Sleep Tight or Ratter. Bebjak and co-screenwriter Peter Gasparik develop real relationships, albeit significantly unhealthy ones. Ultimately, its chills are of an existential rather than horrific nature.

As Tomáš, Noël Czuczor is such a cold fish it is hard to fully take stock of his work, but that is a rather appropriate within the film’s dramatic context. Rebeka Poláková’s Kristína is also somewhat “difficult,” but it is also quite harrowing to watch what she endures. Still, she is not a stereotypically passive victim. When they finally share proper scenes together, the chemistry is believably weird.

Cleaner is sinister enough for genre fans to appreciate Bebjak’s command of mood and atmosphere, but straight enough for respectable patrons to attend is screenings without apologies. It is different, in mostly a creepy good way. Recommended for adventurous cineastes and cult film connoisseurs, The Cleaner screens this Friday (5/20) at MoMI, as part of this year’s Panorama Europe.