The Abandoned, an English-language Spanish-made film about Russia that was shot in Bulgaria, is almost as convoluted as its pedigree. A perplexing little ghost story about one woman’s search for her roots (in a derelict farm house on a deserted island in the Russian wilderness), the film grapples with the weightiness of the past, the inevitability of fate, and the madness of desire.
Orphaned at the age of one, Marie (Anastasia Hille) has grown up between England and America, and knows little of her early months in her Russian homeland. This all changes when she receives word from an absurdly creepy notary that she still owns the old farm where she was born. Game for the experience of unpacking the mysteries of her past, Marie heads off into the Russian backwoods.
After a weird run-in with some locals who seem to be there merely to remind the audience that elderly Eastern European people are portentous spine-tinglers all, Marie and a guide drive in near-total silence up through the forest to the family farm, at which point her driver disappears and Marie wanders into the house looking for him. From this fairly straightforward (and terribly conventional) setup, it very quickly becomes apparent that a) the house is haunted, b) Marie has a long-lost twin brother named Nikolai, and c) nothing makes any sense.
Indeed, there are ghosts, or something. At the very least there are white-eyed doppelgangers lurking about, and they have a propensity to stare blandly, shuffle deliberately, and generally to hang around scarily when Marie and Nikolai least want them to. It’s all very sinister, but it is never made clear just what these doppelgangers are here to do, exactly, apart from the obvious yikes factor.
We learn from Nikolai (Karel Roden) at a quiet moment toward the middle of the film that if you see your doppelganger you are about to die, a point that, while plainly significant, doesn’t clear up much of the muddle. When Marie’s doppelganger approaches and then kisses (I want to say makes out) with herself, we reach the apex of ‘I have no idea what’s going on here’. That is, until the past suddenly charges back to a spectral life, and a horrific murder and survival story plays out as Marie and Nikolai watch, awestruck, and we watch, bemused.
Throughout, the weighty issues of history and fate hang over the film like sandbags on kitestrings. Can we ever abandon the past? Or, are we doomed to repeat it at midnight on our 40th birthday for some reason? Because neither Nikolai nor Marie has done anything wrong (that we are aware of, although there are hints that Nikolai might have murdered his wife), it is hard to understand just why all of this is happening to them. In the cosmos of the ghost story, repercussions tend to follow transgressions. Not here. Instead, The Abandoned teaches us that if you are unlucky enough to be Marie and Nikolai, you’re kinda screwed. Here endeth the lesson.
It must be said that Xavi Giménez’s cinematography lends an extraordinary appeal to the film, and Jorge Macaya’s artful editing keeps the long periods of little or no dialogue (“Hello? Anybody there? Is that you, Nikolai? Hello?” etc.) moving eerily along. For a film which has only two main characters but is only told from the point of view of one of them (until a sudden, unsettling change of tactic in the final act), the technical prowess of the crew manages to save the film from the interminable bore it could have been. The DVD comes with a short making-of featurette and a full 15 minutes of previews for Lion’s Gate slasher films.