Remake seems to be very much a Film Festival film, happy to alienate one audience in finding another, happy to wholeheadedly explore the possibilities of the form, to be more appealing on a formal level than a narrative one, caught as a ‘why the hell not?’ afterthought by film students and film students. It can often be the quiet revelation of the film festival experience but usually, it slips idly by with a few good ideas but no great ones. Remake falls into the latter category. Lisa (Lisa Henni), a young woman who films everything, meets and falls in love with Martin (Martin Wallström) and after two years together, they move to New York. We see everything through Lisa’s camera as she relentlessly catalogues every moment of her life, from the mundane to the glorious. After a few weeks and an argument with the increasingly impatient Martin, Lisa wanders the streets and meets Lucas (Lucas Hazlett), an exciting, spontaneous New York native. It’s basically a pretty simple “girl meets boy, relationship ensues, girl meets other boy, question marks ensue” kind of tale and a simple experimentation with the increasingly popular documentary/drama/’found footage’ hybrid form(s). Though attempts are made to experiment visually and narratively, it is the success mainly of the latter that makes Remake worth considering after leaving the cinema.
Though the film’s minutiae is generally a bit unsatisfying and something I will address in detail, the film’s subtle structural tweaks to found footage norms are where writer-directors Per Gavatin and Andreas Öhman’s work succeeds. Simply speaking, the reliability of the found footage form relies on the existence of a ‘non-editor’, whose job is to simply collate, arrange and execute with no creative capacities otherwise. Though difficult to describe too much without spoiling, Remake’s most positive aspect comes from its positioning of the editor as an unreliable narrator of sorts, an agent with the capacity to select and emphasize events as they see fit, affecting the intake and interpretation of detail. Gavatin and Öhman’s ability to play with simultaneity and linearity in film structure is piqued brilliantly with a reveal near the end that retrospectively alters about half the film in an emotionally and narratively satisfying manner. It is in this deft ordering and reordering of emotional registration and narrative structure that Remake succeeds most.
However, despite the film’s interesting forays into narrative experimentation, the drama itself is disappointingly stolid, not up to the unruly demands of a docu-drama hybrid. The film places itself in odd formal territory from its first scene, in which Lisa and Martin wake up together after a one-night stand. As they ‘clumsily’, ‘awkwardly’ navigate the uncomfortable situation in full, coherent, dramatically relevant sentences, captured in crisp, balanced audio, a camera in hand to render every moment in unnaturally still frames, a very simple truth is exposed: this piece is not natural, it’s devised as hell and really isn’t going to be particularly subtle about it. Gavatin and Öhman, both primarily from writing backgrounds, have crafted a well-structured story but that’s the problem; it is far too obviously crafted and that’s a problem for a would-be hybrid project. Beyond the sound execution and logical flow of the narrative, dialogue rarely flows naturally, there is no ellipsis or rhythm, every beat is hit and milked for all its worth and very little feels particularly raw. I don’t think I’ve ever heard so clear a diarrhoea attack as the one recorded through a closed door with the inbuilt microphone on Lisa’s DSLR. Though these moments aren’t constant, they are frequent enough to pull you out of a film that should – and frustratingly, occasionally does – feel like the only people involved in its creation are the ones on screen.
These moments of intimacy between the camera and its subjects can be great and the film benefits from the fact that, even if its plot rings false, the locations brim with the kind of energy to be expected of the tried and true cinematic hub that is New York City. The performances are informed by the energy of their natural environs and are brilliantly executed, Wallström is good as the straight-laced but occasionally aggressive Martin while Henni as the torn, self-doubting Lisa and Hazlett as the intriguing, energetic Lucas are the beating heart of the film. For all its contrivance, when Lisa and Lucas are together, there are moments of actual spontaneity, in large part due to Hazlett’s background in improvisational comedy. It’s these moments, in the buzzing heart of New York, which border on something real and give the film a sense of play and energy. The role of the camera in all of this is notable too, calling to mind Martin Scorsese’s maxim – ‘Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s not’. When these characters are together, as one is usually holding the camera, rarely are both of them in the frame and as a result, we learn as much about the one on screen by how they are behaving as we do about the one off screen by how they film them. It is this tension between that which is in the frame and that which isn’t that informs the best camerawork and is responsible for a great deal of the film’s best moments.
That said, it’s the success of these lived in aspects that makes the alienations all the more frustrating. Beyond the prosaic language and obvious plot motivations, the film actually delves into some proper Brechtian alienation throughout with initially subtle but increasingly obvious focus shifts. That these shifts in focus occur in shots where both characters are deep in the frame draws immediate attention to the fact that yes, there are crew members behind that camera shifting focus, this project is constructed, manipulated, this is anything but spontaneous. Now I’m not complaining about getting Brecht on board, going the Verframdunseffekt route will border on perfection if you do it right, exposing the ‘real’ as false and transcending the limitations of the form to begin a real conversation, yes, great. But when that ‘real’ actually feels more palpable than the clunky staging and pretty simplistic script in the real, it can’t help but feel like an insecure afterthought here. The simple fact is the best moments in the film are the simple ones, regardless of how the directors want you to interpret them.
Ultimately, I’m not bothered by it trying to draw into question what is ‘real’ in cinema, it’s a valid and brilliant space to enter. Nor am I detracting from it for not properly pursuing the real it so frustratingly draws close to at times. What bothers me is that it just feels like Remake is unsure of what it wants to commit to: real or ‘real’. And it’s that midground that kills it a little bit.