Cine Outsider header
front page    disc reviews    film reviews    articles    interviews  
By any other name
Text and subtext are in sublime balance in Jennifer Sheridan's assured and compelling ROSE: A LOVE STORY, in which a couple have chosen to live in isolation to protect a secret whose exposure could destroy their relationship. Slarek is captivated by another fine social horror-themed debut features at this year's BFI London Film Festival.
 

In an isolated corner of a snow-swept woodland, a man leaves his house and locks the door behind him. There’s just one thing – he secures it with what looks more like the sort of latch lock you generally have on the inside of the door to prevent unwelcome guests from breaking in. In the bedroom of the house, a woman named Rose (Sophie Rundle) wakes from a dream, and while the man cautiously retrieves a rabbit from a trap, the woman enters the kitchen and contemplatively studies the reflection of her face in a coffee pot. Questions are quickly raised. Is the man keeping Rose prisoner? Is this an abusive relationship in which the man has transported her to a distant location and is now preventing her from going outside because he’s an all-controlling scumbag? The fact that the house is surrounded with homemade chimes to presumably function as alarms and the interior is starved of natural light seems to add weight to this suspicion. And what of Rose herself? Is she cheerlessly contemplating her reflection because she wants to check her hair or because she has self-worth issues as a result of this forced confinement and possible abuse?

It turns out that the man’s name is Sam (Matt Stokoe, who also write the screenplay), and when he returns to the house all the above speculation is shattered in an instant by the manner in which he and Rose greet each other, their interaction very much that of two people who have been in a loving relationship for long enough to be completely relaxed in each other’s company. So quickly was I convinced by the authenticity of their relationship that I wasn’t a bit surprised to later learn that actors Rundle and Stokoe were a couple in real life. Now there’s a savvy bit of casting. Sam enquires about the progress Rose is making on her novel and the two exchange the sort of easy-going pleasantries that real couples do, the only moment of potential conflict occurring when Sam tells Rose that she looks nice today. It’s a compliment into which Rose reads unintended deeper meaning, and one that will have a very specific echo later.

Sophie Rundle as Rose

Then, just as we have adjusted to the notion that they’re a regular couple, we’re thrown a series of initially puzzling curve balls. Rose starts preparing dinner, but before doing so puts on medical gloves and adds a few drops of an unspecified liquid to a face mask that she wears to prepare meat. Sam, meanwhile, baths in what may be bottled water (or perhaps alcohol?) before entering a room bathed in ultraviolet light, dropping his trousers and placing leeches on his legs, which he leaves to feed while he calmly reads a book. From his demeanour we can assume this is an everyday occurrence. When the process is complete, he mashes the leeches up with a pestle and mortar and presents them to Rose to eat, something she’s not keen to do. I can’t say I’m surprised. Sam nonetheless pesters her to tuck in and briefly mentions the rules that they have both agreed on. That night he asks if they can keep the light on so he can look at his partner while they make love but Rose is having none of it, seemingly insecure about the paleness of her skin.

Okay, let’s pause for a second here. Everything about how the opening ten minutes of Rose: A Love Story (whose original title was, I gather, simply Rose) plays like a mystery that the film seems to be inviting the viewer to untangle, one whose answer is confirmed not in a sudden revelation but slowly over the course of these scenes and the ones that immediately follow. The thing is, the true nature of that mystery was in the London Film Festival synopsis for the film and probably others besides – I was certainly aware of it before sitting down to watch it and I’m betting that a good many others will be too. Indeed, the hook being used to attract an audience is the fact that this film offers a different take on a subgenre with which everyone will be familiar. Thus if you are planning to see this film and genuinely don’t know what it’s about, haven’t worked it out from the above and don’t want to know a thing about it in advance, then hop to the final paragraph and avoid all other reviews and plot summaries, as it’s not something I can really bypass if I’m going to talk about just why I was so taken with this remarkable film.

As you’ll probably have guessed by this point, at least if you know your horror movies or read even a brief synopsis, Rose is a vampire, but here vampirism is presented not as a threat to a visually pleasing hero and heroine but a serious medical condition that has to be carefully managed to prevent it becoming lethally destructive. It’s a task to which the devoted Sam has elected to dedicate his life, relocating to a remote spot with his afflicted partner and cutting them off from the rest of civilisation. His only contact with the outside world is a presumably trusted friend named Alan, who brings petrol to a quiet roadside meeting place on a regular basis that Sam pays for with cash whose source is never clarified, though it is perfectly possible that the novel Rose is writing is not her first. The parable here is clear but never overstated, and Rose: A Love Story is absolutely true to its full title, being first and foremost a film about what a person will do to protect and take care someone they love dearly. Here vampirism stands in for cancer, muscular dystrophy, the genre favourite AIDS, drug addiction or even a severe eating disorder,* and rather than abandon Rose when she became infected, Sam has stuck by her and between them they have found a way of living with the condition, albeit one that is governed by strict rules and routines. Just how Rose became infected is never addressed and frankly not relevant to the story being told, but a conversation in which complaints that this is not what they signed up for suggests that it was after they had been together for some time.

Matt Stokoe sa Sam

Of course, for the film to be more than a situational study – which it works perfectly well as, I have to say – there has to be a disruption to this opening equilibrium, and this initially arrives in a form that pits male pride against protective logic, prompting a move on Sam’s part that, while momentarily satisfying, does immediately prompt concern over the impact it might have (as you can probably tell, I’m desperately trying to avoid dropping spoilers here). When the actual disruption comes, however, it does so from a different direction and impacts on Rose and Sam’s carefully managed lifestyle in sometimes unexpected ways, ultimately leading to a proposal from Rose that feels absolutely aligned to the themes and subtext of the film.

Rose is the first feature from director Jennifer Sheridan, and it joins a small but growing band of debut horror features by female directors – one that includes Natalie Erika James’ Relic and Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook – that skilfully demonstrate not just how to integrate social issues into a horror-themed film but to make them integral to the characters and the story being told. I’d say their male counterparts have got some serious catching up to do on this score. All three of these films take the subtext that is such a crucial aspect of great horror cinema and move it to the fore, but all do so without forgetting what makes horror work as a genre in the first place and do so with a respect for audience intelligence. Rose in particular relies on our knowledge of the codes and conventions of its chosen subgenre to tell a story in which vampirism figures strongly but is never mentioned by name, dispensing with its supernatural elements (Rose can see her own reflection) to focus on ones that could have a scientific explanation (a strong thirst for blood that can be triggered instantly by its odour). The impressively naturalistic performances Sheridan teases from her actors and her avoidance of big bang jump scares and look-at-me filmmaking adds to the sense that this is exactly how such a situation might play out in real life, which helps to make Sam and Rose’s devotion to each other all the more believable and touching. Their situation feels real and will likely resonate with anyone who has had to reshape their life and consign everything else in it to the back burner in order to take care of a loved one with a serious illness or debilitating condition. As a result, when Sam, in a rare angry flare-up, inadvertently expresses his suppressed frustration at the impact taking care of Rose has had on his life, it really hurts, in part because you genuinely don’t want anything to come between the two, but also because if you’ve ever been in a remotely similar situation you’ll likely recognise this brief outburst as painfully real.

Only in the later stages did I start to suspect that the film was going to follow genre convention, in part because some way before the end I could only envision three possible outcomes for the story as it later plays out. It’s thus to Sheridan’s considerable credit that while it did indeed follow one of the paths I had predicted, it still managed to surprise me in the exact manner in which events unfolded. It also threw in a neat twist on a key aspect of vampire lore that’s so grounded in realism here that you almost miss it for what it is. It ends on a note that is ripe for speculation, on which I had an initial opinion that changed completely after a few seconds of thoughtful realisation. On reflection, it seems such an appropriate way to end a film in which nothing is overstated and whose story and subtext are given equal footing and work in such perfect harmony.

 


* The eating disorder metaphor was the one cited by director Jennifer Sheridan when interviewed on Zavvi.com https://www.zavvi.com/blog/interviews/lff-2020-interview-director-jennifer-sheridan-on-horror-film-rose-a-love-story/
Rose: A Love Storym poster
Rose: A Love Story
Rose

UK 2020
86 mins
directed by
Jennifer Sheridan
produced by
April Kelley
Sophie Rundle
Matt Stokoe
Robert Taylor
written by
Matt Stokoe
cinematography
Martyna Knitter
editing
Andrew Harmer
Jennifer Sheridan
music
Cato Hoeben
production design
Jessica Barrell
starring
Sophie Rundle
Matt Stokoe
Nathan McMullen
Olive Gray
Boadicea Ricketts

LFF screening date
credit
release date
13-16 October 2020
review posted
23 October 2020

See all of Slarek's reviews