'Autumn Lights' Eschews Genre for Trivial Melancholy
In his debut feature, Angad Aulakh fails to provide engaging characters after turning his nose up at the sexy thriller that could've been.
Auditory outbursts during films are generally bothersome. Of course, there are obvious exceptions, such as laughter at comedic moments, or impulsive mumbles after particularly affecting scenes. But the most distracting instances occur when someone makes his or her negative feelings clear for an entire audience. For example, an immature teenager yelled, "This movie sucks!" within the first 20 minutes of Ariel's Nerve (2016). Granted, I agreed with him, but if I had not his shout have lessened, and perhaps ruined, my experience.
Thus, I was perturbed to hear what I mistook to be a derisive snort halfway through Autumn Lights. It only took me a second to find the culprit: a middle-aged man, sitting a few seats to my right. He looked around, and then turned to his partner and whispered, "I dozed off." She nodded, and they resumed watching the film. I took the moment to observe others around me: everyone sat relaxed, leaning back in their seats, their faces clouded by indifference. I considered myself: slouched against an armrest, one leg thrown over the other, head resting on my fist. I took a deep breath and steeled myself for what ultimately proved to be a forgettable film.
Angad Aulakh's debut feature certainly doesn't lack the necessary elements to be a tantalizing thriller. The film opens on a young woman, who drowns herself in an isolated, Icelandic lake. An American photographer named David (Guy Kent) finds her body, and the police ask him to stay until they complete their investigation. Though a recent breakup has left him starved for human connection, David obliges, and wanders the countryside snapping photos until he meets Marie (Marta Gastini), an attractive and melancholic Italian woman.
Marie invites David to a dinner party and introduces him Johann (Sveinn Ólafur Gunnarsson), her burly Scandinavian husband, and Liv (Salome R. Gunnarsdóttir), her lively, optimistic best friend. As he waits to hear from the police, David's affections for Marie develop under the nose of her emotionally absent partner, setting the stage for what one might expect to be a climactic, and violent, finalé.
Yet, Autumn Lights doesn't succumb to the genre elements as one would expect; Aulakh uses the opening suicide as nothing more than a red herring, instead offering a drama that fails to provide an intriguing storyline or adequately study its characters. Its most pervasive issue stems from the film's inability to determine who its protagonist is; though it starts, and spends the entire first act, with David, it supplants him for Marie at the midpoint.
At first, the change is welcome, as David grows tiresome due to his meandering, objective-less nature. It doesn't help that Kent brings minimal spark to the part, appearing more to read his lines instead of feel them. But Marie also proves uninteresting to follow. Despite her wealth, intelligence, and physical beauty, she doesn't have attainable goals beyond leaving the countryside, which she only actively pursues in the few scenes in which she asks other characters to take vacations with her. There's little for Gastini to do beyond look troubled, and thus the film squanders its second chance to be worthwhile.
Additionally, Autumn Lights suffers from a lack of consequence when the characters finally do take action. After David and Marie finally begin their affair -- which promises to surprise no one and takes far too long to occur -- he apologizes to Liv, whom he slept with prior. His concern proves meaningless, though, when she shrugs it off: "It might have mattered if we were teenagers." One would expect Liv's acceptance of transgressions to be an outlier, a statement on her light-hearted nature juxtaposed with her colder contemporaries. Rather, this proves to be somewhat of a theme that ultimately leads to complete disinterests; if there are no negative repercussions, then it doesn't matter how the characters act. In this way, the film appears to repel the tension that inherently makes illicit affairs compelling to watch, and it offers no engaging message in its place.
Despite shooting the film in stunning Iceland during the period of Midnight Sun -- which leads to days of extended hours of sunlight, thanks to the country's proximity to the North Pole -- Aulakh hardly uses the setting to his advantage. Notably, every scene occurs during daylight hours, but the sun's permanence hardly seems to actively affect the characters; while they note that it makes it challenging to sleep, none suffer from anything resembling insomnia, or the symptoms of it. The opportunity to expose how such a place could truly drive a lonely heart to depression, as perhaps happened to the woman who committed suicide, feels sorely underused.
More unforgivably, Aulakh doesn't take advantage of the majestic scenery around him either. This would'nt be even remotely disappointing if he did more interesting work while framing the actors. What he offers instead is half-baked camera movement that frames characters that lack saturation and contrast, visually and emotionally. The setting only alters the film in two ways: it feels isolated, and justifies characters speaking various languages. Admittedly, the second is one of the more rewarding elements; English, Italian, and Icelandic are spoken to emphasize power dynamics based on who can understand the language being spoke. Yet, this hardly makes Iceland feel like a make-or-break location for the film.
Beyond that, there's very little to hang the proverbial hat on here. Autumn Lights runs a long 98-minutes; when it doesn't advance the story, its characters ruminate on somewhat uninspired topics, such as why their past romances failed, or they offer expository dialogue over romantic montage: "It's different with you. I feel like no one opens up anymore." This is not to say that Aulakh does anything wrong, rather that it just doesn't feel quite right. What remains are the bones of a decent genre flick, with the aspirations of a Nicolas Winding Refn film. Perhaps Aulakh will get there one day, but there are several kinks to smooth first, and it was no surprise when the man who occasionally snored himself awake kept falling back to sleep.