Friday, April 05, 2024

The Penultimate, on Film Movement Plus

Get ready for liberal use of the term “Kafkaesque.” This unnamed Water Inspector’s latest building visit follows in the tradition of The Castle, but getting in is not the problem. Getting out is the tricky part. It might even be impossible, considering how many years pass in frustration during the course of Jonas Kaerup Hjort’s The Penultimate, which releases today on Film Movement Plus.

As professions go, a water-meter-reader definitely has serious Kafkaesque potential, because it combines aspects of both bureaucracy and manual labor. Unfortunately, our Inspector cannot find a single blessed meter in the concrete monstrosity. Nor can he locate any exits. The big front door seems to be entrance-only.

As weeks turn into months, he agrees to marry the aspiring “Bride,” because she promises to arrange a meeting with the elusive “Caretaker,” who must be the super from Hell, if he even exists. Perversely, this inspires violent assaults from “The Tormented” woman, whose jealous rage baffles him. Slowly, his desperation takes a suicidal turn.

The imposing cement Brutalist edifice is a truly stunning setting. Hjort creates a world that fuses the most inhospitable aspects of Kafka and Orwell. Most viewers will marvel at the film’s cold, evil look for about twenty minutes, before the realization sets in that this is all they are going to get for the remaining hour and forty minutes. The narrative is simply a punishing piling-on of futility, alienation, and humiliation. The characterization is sketchy and any sense of relief is strictly forbidden.

The Penultimate
is immersive in the most uncomfortable way possible. Jacob Sofussen’s cinematography and the Spartan design work will land on audiences like a load of bricks, but Hjort’s static narrative makes the film better suited to play as a museum installation than something you would ever want to stream at home. In terms of style and tone, Aleksey German’s Hard to be a God is probably the best comparison.

The Penultimate is just too much (bleakness, darkness, and stillness) and not enough (characters, storyline, general signs of life). It is not philistinism to point out story, dialogue, characterization, and music are also important elements of cinema. At first, the integrity of Hjort’s vision will impress you and then it crushes your spirit. Check out the early scenes if you can, to appreciate its artistry, but the full two hours-plus is not recommended as a sit-down experience, when The Penultimate starts streaming today (4/5) on Film Movement Plus.