Experimental art filmmakers Ben Rivers and Ben Russell team up to bring us A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness. An exercise in patience and stillness; it stars musician Robert AA Lowe, whose contemplative, unnamed character drifts from quiet, social observation into gentle introspection, before finally taking part in a surreal black metal show; never saying a word along the way. The film exists somewhere between reality and fantasy, and is enthralling in its enchanting disconnection and focus on the individual. It’s bold, very slow and brilliant in a truly original way.
ASTWOTD is an unnerving trip through three very different environments, with little to show for continuity but its repeated dependence on mystery and illusion. Its main character feels spectre-like in his haunting environments, ethereal and detached. The film’s intentions and meanings are more of a Rorschach test than anything, and its sparse minimalism will reveal something different whomsoever is immersed into it.
The first third of ASTWOTD feels like anti-cinema, giving off a carefree, uninterested vibe, (many of us probably emit something similar on a daily basis), as it documents a strange and confused series of scenes, during a party of sorts among friends. Offering a snapshot of disjointed 21st century living, with our dependency on being social, in a world of gestures and glances. The film feels effortlessly cool as it mimics the social interactions between us to a tee.
Progression is hinted at symbolically with vague social cues and undetermined nuggets of speech, dialogue is fragmented and mostly incomprehensible, doing little more than hinting at these character’s lives. This, along with the informal acting style, itself almost a brand of anti-cinema, with characters over-talking each other and being generally vague, make the first third of the film feel more like Big Brother than anything, as we drop in on conversations often banal, sometimes fascinating, but always bizarre.
Stripped back to its bare essentials, ASTWOTD is refreshingly simple, once you’ve accepted its lack of plot, and become comfortable with its blunted sequencing and its beautifully muted aesthetic, you’ll have lost yourself, entranced by its atmosphere and its dark sense of mystery, darkness that steers clear from ever feeling sombre or gloomy. Its three parts have little to no chronological connection, and may not be connected at all, the only sense of unity between all three parts is the film’s retention of its thoughtfully detached style and insistence on the subjective.
During the second third the film shifts environmentally and socially into wholly quieter surroundings, feeling like a return to the opening 10 minutes, jettisoning speech and social interaction entirely, becoming a silent portrait of this unnamed character, rich with symbolism, as we silently watch him spend his days in solitude; reading, hiking, fishing and hunting, I find myself immersed in bird and insect song, along with his pensive, distant stares; reveling in ASTWOTD’s vibrant atmosphere.
Each shift in environment sees the film become progressively darker, literally and figuratively, with the final third taking place during a black metal show, marked by slow camera pans of the audience; lost in deep thought, and revealing close ups of band members lost in song. This final third celebrates darkness in a renewed sense, leaving behind solitude to embrace something far more bestial. The final third is definitely the hardest third to remain interested in, taking the film away from reality into something fantastically surreal. Though despite this shape shifting, it still manages to retain something essential, enough for you to remain glued to the screen.
A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness isn’t for the faint of heart, its nebulous focus and distinct lack of storytelling make it unapproachable, and its abstractness can be seen as a weakness as much as it can a strength. Though those patient among us will find it uniquely interesting in its rejection of formality, and some (myself included) will come away loving its fascinating serenity.