His first film since 2011’s We Might as Well Fail, Govinda Van Maele’s Gutland is an atmospheric, gripping mystery set in the Luxembourg countryside. Arriving in a small village, German Jens (Frederick Lau) is looking for work as a farmhand – and to hide.
Though he’s readily accepted by the locals – especially by flirtatious Lucy (Vicky Krieps) – his taciturn nature and put-upon expression signals that he has something to hide. Meanwhile, the cops come looking for the suspect of a recent robbery, but Jens’ new friends throw them off the scent. An early sequence where Jens sleeps with Lucy is comically foreboding – a narrative seed that will come into play later. Gutland is strongest in its first act, slowly drip feeding information and ratcheting up the tension with a dual mystery than concerns Jens’ chequered past and the slightly off-kilter behaviour of the villagers.
Balanced with gorgeous shots of farmland and forestry, Narayan Van Maele’s handheld cinematography juxtaposes rural beauty with a creeping sense that something is not quite right, combining stylistic tropes from both European folk horror and film noir. The plot thickens when Jens discovers a box full of raunchy photos of women, hidden in the caravan where he’s staying. Their faces obscured, it gradually becomes obvious that the photos are of the women in the village, though the identity of the photographer(s) remains unclear. Up to this this point, Gutland is effortlessly paced, yet its second act falters, allowing the plot to grind to a halt with a surfeit of unnecessary scenes of Jens getting to know the locals.
In addition, a sub-plot concerning Jens’ co-robbers, turning up every so often to demand their cut of the loot, feels perfunctory and detracts from the central mystery of the village. As Gutland nears its conclusion and the mystery of the photos begins to unravel, the film takes a turn for the surreal and psychological. The film’s narrative objectivity crumbles as details in the photographs seem to change, and even linear time itself is brought into question as Jens appears to replicate the actions and appearance of the caravan’s previous occupant, Georges.
Unfortunately, the film’s climax doesn’t quite deliver the grand reveal that the rest of the film gestures towards, favouring a shaggy-dog ambivalence that gestures towards surreal ambiguity but perhaps more accurately masks creative indecision. Nevertheless, Van Maele has crafted an intriguing, atmospheric mystery whose formal successes just about compensate for an uneven plot.