Hungarian director Benedek Fliegauf, winner of the Silver Bear in 2012 for his bleak and brutally affecting thriller about the persecution faced by Hungary’s Romany community Just the Wind, returns to Berlin with his sixth feature, Lily Lane (Liliom Ösvény). A harrowing journey between two worlds, one haunted by past mistakes, another populated by memories of the dead, this grim, yet weirdly beguiling mother-son drama uses the power of imagination to traverse the borders of a child’s conception of reality. A portrayal of the continuous struggle at the core of our inner worlds Fliegauf creates an atmosphere of mounting unease by blurring the lines between fact and fiction.
Lily Lane opens with an extreme close-up of a miniature Lego castle. Shot on a handheld camera, in almost pitch darkness and accompanied by the humming of what sounds like a child. It’s hard to decipher where this footage belongs; is it a discarded family video, the amateur camerawork of a child filmmaker or the mysterious video tapes of a home intruder? Things don’t become any clearer when we cut to a mother (Angéla Stefanovics) telling her child, Danny (Bálint Sótonyi) a rather disturbing fairy tale about a young girl, a fairy, a huntsman and a rabid fox. We soon learn through an IM conversation with Danny’s father that his parents are separating, a decision clearly driven by his mother’s struggle to cope with her deep seated issues with her own parents. Exploring death, birth and paternal rejection through the subjectivity of a child allows Fliegauf to question our notions of reality.
The mother’s stories slowly reveal themselves to mirror the fragile bond she shared with her own parents. Sadly, what remains of her feelings of love for her own child stands little chance against the grand narrative of rejection that she has woven into these tales. Danny’s fractured world is revealed through the use of Skype conversations, underwater camera work and a series of haunting home-video flashbacks, culminating in a narrative that feels detached from reality. Combining natural light conditions with a deeply claustrophobic handheld style, cinematographer Zoltán Lovasi allows his camera to inhabit this fissure in the relationship between the love and responsibility of a mother, whilst the film’s nuanced sound design makes it almost impossible to differentiate between the natural sounds of the Buda Hills region and the world Danny mother has fabricated in her mind.
The presence of nature as a therapeutic force, compared to the alienation of urban living, suggests the cyclical nature of paternal rejection is perhaps driven by something larger than a symptom of congenital negligence, but larger external forces beyond our control. Sadly, the results are far too laborious to become fully immersed in, with these deeply personal ruminations alienating the viewer as the film’s ambiguity gives way to a sense of disaffection. Lily Lane remains strangely compelling experience, yet as Danny and his mother begin exorcising their demons, their moment of catharsis feels far too person to intrude upon. Eerie and unsettling rather than genuinely unnerving this urban fairytale whispers all too quietly of the personal to truly grapple the larger ideas implied within its subtext.
The 2016 Berlin Film Festival takes place between 11-21 February. Follow our coverage here.
Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble