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The Penultimate (Den næstsidste)

A deep dive into the darkest side of the human soul, this is a difficult yet rewarding experience — live from Tallinn


I usually dislike using the word kafkaesque to describe a movie, but in the case of The Penultimate, there is no better descriptor. This is because Kafka never explains. You don’t know why Gregor Samsa is an ant or why Josef K. has been arrested. You’re simply presented with an absurd situation and have to live with it. The same goes for The Penultimate, a deep dive into the human condition, which shouldn’t be explained rather than simply experienced.

Joen Højerslev plays a Water Inspector, who arrives on a donkey in a black-and-white scene that plays something like a cross between Au Hasard Balthasar and The Seventh Seal. Immediately we are in austere arthouse territory as he faces up against a building so large it dissolves into the sky.

There doesn’t actual appear to be any water in the building, a grand, dusty space with few extraneous elements. Joen is greeted by two, unspeaking twins, who follow him around but never stop him to ask what he’s doing. Other characters run up to him discussing things he has no idea of; one woman hits him over the head with an iron. He attempts to leave, only to find himself in the existential Hotel California.

It has a lot in common with stuck-in-the-house horror, perhaps most closely Vivarium, which saw a couple stuck in the same house for years, or the hermetically sealed world of Cube, which The Penultimate evokes with its hundreds of similar-looking rooms. But The Penultimate doesn’t even have any pretence of realism, psychological or otherwise, like those two films, launching us straight into strangeness from the very first scene. Additionally, the narrative develops in ways you could never really expect, making this a genuinely unpredictable experience.

But what’s it really about? The powers of analysis and investigation are beyond me at the moment. The allegory is so broad it could be interpreted in many ways: religious, existential, bureaucratic. What stays is the unnerving tone and dark, absurd vision and its stunning images — none of which I will ruin here. It’s best experienced going in cold, discovering its developments alongside its characters. Credit goes to the lead Højerslov, who has a great physicality and emotion as he tries in vain to understand what is happening, anchoring our enjoyment of the movie even when its final meaning can be rather elusive.

It establishes debut director Jonas Kærup Hjort as a confident stylist. The use of darkness in 4:3 makes the film feel deep and expansive, with the edges of the frame feeling like they expand and blend into the rest of the black screen. This sense of expansion is stressed by the immersive sound design. Rumbling, welling, roiling and banging sounds suggest an extra vastness of the space, as well as other, unspoken terrors. If you are watching at home, turn off all other lights. Extra background sounds are optional. Let the film sink and wash over you. You won’t be disappointed.

The Penultimate plays as part of the First Feature competition at Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, running from 13th to 29th November.

By Redmond Bacon - 21-11-2020

Redmond’s tastes are pretty diverse – from the neglected cop classic Tango and Cash (Andrei Konchalovsky,1989) the lesbian drama Show Me Love (Lukas Moodysson, 1998) to Scorsese’s best film:...

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